June 19, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

Small Employers Welcome Work Permits for Young Immigrants

June 15, 2012

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Immigrant students block a Los Angeles road Friday to protest deportations of undocumented immigrants. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Small businesses long resisted efforts to shift the responsibility for policing immigrants onto employers.

Verifying the legal status of new hires is a costly, burdensome distraction, one that's best left to immigration officials, they have argued.

But now, some business owners are breathing easier, in light of the Department of Homeland Security's new announcement that it would stop deporting younger illegal immigrants, and instead issue them work permits.

In a statement Friday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the agency will no longer deport undocumented immigrants under 30 years old who came to the U.S. when they were 16 or younger, have lived here for at least five years, and have no criminal record.

While immigration laws must be enforced, Napolitano said, they weren't "designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language."

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business lobby with some 340,000 members, has long opposed granting what it sees as amnesty to illegal immigrants, rather than enforcing existing laws.

Still, it says small employers welcome any move that lessens the regulatory burden on running their business.

"While this issue doesn't impact the vast majority of small-business owners, policies that might protect employers from having a 'gotcha' moment with the government could be seen as a relief," Jean Card, an NFIB spokesperson, said about the new policy.

Just over 10% of small employers have at least one immigrant worker, according to a 2008 survey of the group's small-business members. Businesses with 20 or more employees were twice as likely to hire an immigrant, compared to those with nine or fewer employees, the survey found.

Yet up to 36% of the 750 owners surveyed said they couldn't recall filling out an I-9, a federal form required for all employees that includes work eligibility data. Of those that did fill out the forms, nearly all checked an applicant's driver's license to confirm their identity.

To check if an applicant was legally allowed to work in the U.S., roughly half said Social Security cards were the most commonly used documents, followed by birth certificates, passports and green cards – though up to 9% said they've been shown a fake ID.

Under the Legal Workforce Act, a federal bill introduced in September, all employers would be required to verify their workers' immigration status using E-Verify, an online system that checks I-9 data against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security records. Businesses found to have hired illegal workers would be fined $25,000, while owners face up to 10 years in jail.

Arizona passed a similar law in 2008, and some states, including North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, already require E-Verify checks for public-sector employees, state contractors and others.

E-Verify processed more than 16 million employee queries in 2011, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services data. About 1.4% were found to be unauthorized to work in the U.S., while 0.3% were confirmed to be legal only after an initial mismatch was contested.

If online checks were mandatory nationwide, the system would need to process some 60 million queries a year, the agency estimates.

That has some employers worried that glitches in the system will needlessly bog down the hiring process.

The National Small Business Association, a Washington small-business advocacy group with about 15,000 members, has called the proposal to force all employers to use the system "unfair and massively burdensome" – citing estimates that it will cost firms with fewer than 500 employees up to $2.6 billion a year to comply.

It says the policy move announced Friday doesn't go far enough in taking owners off the hook for immigrant workers.

"Our primary concern is protecting small business from the unfair job of policing immigration," says Molly Brogan, a group spokesperson. "While we do hear from some members that finding willing and able U.S. workers can be a struggle, the announcement doesn't really address the ongoing efforts to force small businesses to police the U.S. workforce," she says.

Indeed, the Obama administration has focused much of its immigration strategy on employers. In the past three years, immigration official have audited more than 7,500 businesses and imposed $100 million in fines on employers suspected of hiring illegal workers. In March alone, some 500 employers were notified of audits.

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