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So far so good for law enacted last year

Immigration checks not a problem for business

In about a month and a half, a second wave of Mississippi businesses will have to begin using the E-Verify system, an Internet database that tracks through Social Security numbers whether a worker is in the U.S. legally.

Gov. Haley Barbour signed Senate Bill 2988 last March that mandated Mississippi employers use the database as part of any new hire’s regular background check.

On July 1, 2008, businesses with 250 or more employees had to begin using E-Verify. On July 1 of this year, businesses with at least 100 employees will have to sign on. On July 1, 2010, businesses with at least 30 employees must begin using the system. By July 1, 2011, all Mississippi businesses must be using it.

There was serious concern last spring from business groups and trade associations over the law. Specifically, they pointed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the database, and that department’s concession that the database was unreliable and frequently resulted in false positives or negatives when it came to worker eligibility. Bill Chandler, the executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, also vigorously opposed the bill, but not because of E-Verify’s dependability. He called the bill “mean-spirited” and “racist” in a letter to Barbour before Barbour signed the bill. Chandler was out of town last week and unavailable for comment.

“We tried to get that law changed because, quite frankly, it was poorly written,” said Mississippi Associated General Contractors (AGC) executive director Perry Nations.

Aside from E-Verify’s sporadic approval process, the AGC and other business groups were troubled by the lack of an appeal process in the bill for a business that was found to have hired undocumented workers after July 1 of last year.

A bill that would have established an appeal process died in a special session last year. It cleared the Senate but did not make it out of committee in the House.

Now that Mississippi’s businesses have had to use the system for nearly 10 months, Nations said he has not heard any major complaints arise.

“They have not had any problems,” he said. “They just run (Social Security numbers) through and put them in their employee file.”

Penalties for businesses found to have employed undocumented workers are stiff. The business loses the possibility of landing any state contracts for three years and could lose its privilege license all together. The business also has to reimburse the state for the costs of rebidding a stripped contract.

“It’s a big deal if something happens that you have no control over,” Nations said. “Let’s take a huge roadbuilding contractor. He has $400 million in road building contracts around the state and has a license with the state board of contractors. He has a superintendent on a job and a guy walks up to him from MDOT and they need a drain run at the last minute. A guy walks up to him and needs a few hours’ work. So the superintendent hands him a shovel and tells him to dig that 20-foot drain over there. The guy comes up illegal. That company loses their contracts all over the state.

“There’s a lot of potential in there that could be really damaging. I don’t think that was the intent. If the intent were to stop illegals, I don’t know why the Mississippi House would not have considered our bill that cleaned it up (in the 2008 session) and made it workable, to be honest with you.”

Nations said efforts to revive the appeal process stipulation for this legislative session never made it past the discussion stage. “The Senate figured there was no way the House was going to pass it, so they didn’t even take it up,” he said.

Whether the E-Verify system will receive funding for the next federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, is another major issue.
The system has secured funding until Sept. 30. The omnibus spending bill Congress is debating does not include E-Verify money. Several states, including Mississippi, have made E-Verify mandatory, which will complicate things if the program’s money is not renewed. Last year’s bill backed by the AGC and others would have mandated a state-run database take the place of E-Verify if it were to disappear from lack of funding.

“We tried to clean the bill up to where it would be workable (and replace E-Verify),” Nations said. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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