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MBJ Editorial: Wording can ease business worries of house bill

We’re not sure who has the edge in the balance of trade between Mississippi and Arizona. But one Arizona export to the Magnolia State — the “show us your papers” immigration legislation — should be packed up and sent back.

Yesterday.

We can give you all sorts of reasons why. But here are a few:

>> Imitating Arizona’s ethnic bullying can only damage the progress Mississippi has made toward becoming a colorblind state and an increasingly popular place for business relocation and expansion. Why mess up a good thing?

>> A state too financially strapped to adequately staff its state patrol hardly needs to hand troopers federal immigration enforcement responsibilities.

>> Counties and cities don’t need the unfunded mandate at a time their very solvency is in danger.

>> The state, counties and cities shouldn’t have to defend themselves in court for inadequate enforcement of federal immigration statutes. They did not cause Washington’s indifference to immigration enforcement and must not bear the consequences of it. Yet this is the consequence called for in the immigration enforcement bill the Senate passed.

This legislation is a bad idea with bad intentions. There’s still time to put it back on the 3:10 to Yuma.

But with the departure of this awful thing that has come our way, we can be thankful it renewed a discussion among Mississippi’s leaders about the responsibilities businesses have in countering illegal immigration.

The discussion at the Capitol has been on the fairness of fines of up to $25,000 for a business that hires an illegal worker. Of course, that’s not fair and we suspect the House majority that adopted a bill with that provision knows that as well.

What is fair is a level playing field for businesses — something highly desired by the 90 percent of the member businesses surveyed in 2008 by the Mississippi chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. In that survey, Mississippi business owners said they support revoking the business license of any business that knowingly hires undocumented workers and continues to employ them after discovering they lacked proper documents. Even more NFID-member businesses — 95 percent — endorsed revoking the license of businesses that accept a known false employment authorization document from a worker, says Ron Aldridge, NFIB/Mississippi state director.

These polling numbers reflect frustration with a Congress and President seemingly indifferent or unwilling to help ensure that businesses compete under fair and equal circumstances. A dry cleaner, landscaper or caterer who follows the rules is not going to win a major contract if it must compete with a business that is escaping payment of income taxes, workers’ compensation taxes, Social Security and other worker-related obligations.

State lawmakers recognized this unfairness when they enacted the Mississippi Employment Protection Act of 2008, a measure that phased in a requirement that all businesses take part in a verification system to verify the federal employment authorization status of all newly hired employees. The state Department of Employment Security is administering the system.

Come July, all businesses in the state must verify the legal status of the workers they hire. Not doing so, according to Statute 71-11-3, subjects the business to revocation of “any license, permit, certificate or other document granted to the employer by any agency, department or government entity in the State of Mississippi for the right to do business in Mississippi for up to one year.”

And the sanction is even stiffer if you’re doing business with the state. It specifies “cancellation of any state or public contract, resulting in ineligibility for any state or public contract for up to three years.”

The E-Verify Law, as it is known, will help create an equitable landscape. As Mr. Aldridge of the NFIB notes, it sets a standard of “whether you hired an illegal worker or not.”

But businesses are skittish and want language inserted into the 2008 law that specifies they must have “knowingly and intentionally” hired an illegal worker. They are nervous about the liability they could face if new workers present falsified work authorization documents. “The way the law is written, it simply says employers can hire only legal workers,” making no exceptions for ones who use stolen Social Security cards and other illegal documents, Mr. Aldridge says,

Businesses would feel more at ease with language that clearly states you are not subject to a charge as long as you followed the E-Verify process and did not knowingly accept false documents.

We would feel more at ease with that wording as well.

And we’ll certainly feel more at ease when the 2011 version of immigration enforcement is on the 3:10 to Yuma.

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