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The first immigration bill of the legislative session to tackle employer sanctions on hiring undocumented workers passed out of committee 9-4 Monday, despite concerns by the bill's author that it was stripped of a key provision.
Rep. Chris Herrod's HB253 was touted by the Provo Republican as a companion piece of legislation to the enforcement-only immigration bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem. Herrod's proposal would target employers that hired undocumented workers, suspending their business licenses for three days on a first offense and for a year on a second violation.
Business interests have derided the legislation as an attempt to shift the responsibility and cost of immigration enforcement onto the private sector, while supporters have heralded it as filling in a long-missing piece of the immigration reform solution.
But one of the bill's tougher ideas was removed by the House Business and Labor Committee a provision that would require employers with five or more employees to participate in the federal E-Verify program under threat of state license suspension. Current law requires businesses with 15 or more to participate, though there is no penalty for noncompliance.
The committee chose to keep the threshold at 15 employees a development that made Herrod unhappy.
"I think that will be a debate on the floor," Herrod said.
The lawmaker said the change would allow smaller businesses to work at a competitive advantage over other businesses and would continue to keep legal residents and citizens from getting jobs.
But opponents including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce blasted the bill as another attempt by government to impose cost burdens on small-business owners.
Wesley Smith, the chamber's director of public policy, attacked HB253 as straying from concepts put forward in the Utah Compact a document signed by more than 3,300 people and organizations that, according to supporters, lays out a compassionate approach to illegal immigration while acknowledging it can only be solved by the federal government.
Smith said the chamber's members "were very concerned about the economic impacts" of the bill and he argued that the "government shouldn't put enforcement on the shoulders of business."
Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said the bill was an attempt to curb identity theft by undocumented workers and that Herrod's proposal would eliminate that type of identity theft "by 100 percent."
Mortensen also said the bill would "level the playing field" by requiring all employers to pay the same levels of unemployment insurance and Social Security tax.
Some committee members were troubled by other items in the bill they perceived as burdensome.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, wanted to strip a requirement for employers to keep E-Verify files in their system for a minimum of three years.
"I don't like that," Dunnigan, owner of an insurance agency, said curtly.
Herrod, however, defended it by saying it matched the federal requirement for keep I-9 forms on file that verify a person's legal right to work in the United States. When Rep. Larry Wiley, D-Salt Lake City, tried to change the time employers must keep E-Verify documents on file to 90 days, that motion was killed by the committee.
Herrod also sought to eliminate a hefty fiscal note from his bill by changing a word similar to what Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, did in his enforcement-only bill. Instead of saying the Attorney General's Office or county attorneys "shall" investigate an employer hiring undocumented workers, Herrod changed it to "may" to give them more discretion.
He said that change would reduce the fiscal note from $1.13 million in 2012 to "zero." The Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office should have a new fiscal note attached to the bill within 24 hours of the changes Herrod submitted on Monday.
The bill would require employers to participate in E-Verify and, if a business is discovered hiring an undocumented worker, it would have 10 days to comply and fire the individual. Not doing so would trigger the penalty provisions in the legislation.
Marina Lowe, legislative policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill shouldn't pass because the U.S. Supreme Court is about to rule on a case based in Arizona that is parallel to Herrod's bill. She said it would be "reckless" to pass legislation when a Supreme Court ruling will address the same issue in the coming months.