It was late Thursday afternoon when the House blindsided the Senate with an immigration bill that, structurally, shifts the liability for enforcing illegal immigration laws from law enforcement to the businesses that hire them.
The Senate’s version put most of the burden of enforcing illegal immigration laws on law enforcement; the bill included provisions that allowed citizens to sue their local police department or sheriff’s office if that citizen felt either agency was not doing enough, under the terms of the bill, to stop illegal immigration. Businesses who knowingly hired illegal immigrants faced mostly administrative penalties, like the possibility of lost operating licenses and probationary periods in which they had to submit employment reports to their local district attorney.
The House version takes a different tack. Gone is the ability to sue law enforcement, and in its place are heavy monetary penalties for businesses who knowingly hire folks who turn out to be in the U.S. illegally. The specifics: A $5,000 fine per day per illegal worker, up to $25,000 per day. That’s a lot of cash and would put most small businesses out of commission within a few days.
The House’s position is pretty simple: Illegal workers wouldn’t be here if businesses would stop hiring them.
Two directors of major business groups Magnolia Marketplace spoke with Friday morning had two wildly different opinions of the House bill.
Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturing Association, didn’t have much of a problem with it “per se.”
“There are some things we’re not quite sure of,” he said. One of the biggest ambiguities, Moon said, is the question of whether companies that verify their workers’ residency eligibility through E-Verify, and that worker turns out to be here illegally, are still subject to the $5,000 per day fine for that worker.
One part of the bill seems to say the companies would be held harmless; another section seems to insinuate they would not.
“We’re not complaining about the sanctions, because we don’t support any manufacturer that hires undocumented workers, but we would like to see that cleaned up a little bit,” Moon said. “We have more procedural questions about the bill than anything else. The general spirit of it is something we can live with.”
Buddy Edens, head of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, had not read the bill when we spoke to him Friday morning, but said the notion of businesses being slapped with a fine that high “makes no sense at all. That’s pretty excessive.”
Politically, the breakdown of the House vote could present a conundrum for Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate GOP leadership.
Two Republican representatives, Larry Baker of Senatobia and Jessica Upshaw of Diamondhead, were absent when the vote went down Thursday afternoon. Rep. Tad Campbell, R-Meridian, voted against it. Every other House Republican voted for it.
Bryant was one of the bill’s most ardent supporters before the Senate sent it to the House. So he has a watershed decision to make in an election year that for him is the most important of his political life: Does he take a hardline stand against illegal immigration at the expense of the business community, which will solidify his popularity with the Tea Party and alienate his law enforcement and most of his business supporters? Or does he protect the business community and open himself up to accusations of being soft on illegal immigration?
He’s not totally tipping his hand yet.
“This is part of the legislative process,” he said in an emailed statement to Magnolia Marketplace. “But we believe the Senate has a better approach to a more fair and reasonable illegal immigration reform. The Senate bill mandates e-verify to protect employers and legal employees while giving law enforcement the authority to arrest those who cross our borders and violate our immigration laws.”