Workforce.com

Senate Ends Debate, Adds Employer Sanctions; Showdown With House Looms

May 24, 2006
The Senate has voted to end debate on immigration legislation that now includes a provision for employer sanctions, while a leading House conservative plans this week to introduce a measure that would require the nearly 12 million undocumented people in the U.S. to "self-deport" and return legally as guest workers.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, hopes his proposal, which includes tough employer sanctions, will be a catalyst for compromise between Senate and House versions of immigration reform bills.

On Wednesday, May 24, the Senate voted to limit debate on its immigration reform bill, meaning that final passage is likely this week. The legislation will include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

The measure would slap fines of up to $20,000 on employers who hire illegal aliens and mandate that companies participate in the Electronic Employment Verification System.

The system would come online 18 months after the secretary of labor receives implementation funds. In the pilot verification program, employers are charged about 25 cents per initial query and up to 48 cents per additional verification.

The Senate bill also authorizes 2,200 additional work-site enforcement agents annually for five years for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The House measure, approved in December, would make illegal aliens felons and enhance border security. It contains workplace provisions similar to those in the Senate bill.

The House and Senate are headed for contentious negotiations, with conservatives vowing to oppose "amnesty" for illegal aliens.

Pence calls his position "the real rational middle ground" on immigration reform. Without it, he believes, there will be no bicameral agreement.

"I feel like we’re headed for a train wreck," he said in a May 23 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Pence is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of 110 House conservatives.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, says Pence’s offering is "one of many things that will be floated in the coming weeks … as we attempt to forge a compromise. Trying to find a pathway that is acceptable to the House and Senate is going to be very difficult."

Pence’s plan is based on an idea formulated by Helen Krieble, who hires 10 guest workers a year for her business, the Colorado Horse Park. Under the proposal, private worker placement agencies, called "Ellis Island Centers," would be licensed by the federal government to match guest workers with jobs that businesses verify cannot be filled with American workers.

U.S. companies would apply for workers through the agencies. Presumably, placement firms like Manpower and Adecco would be utilized. Specific corporations cannot be named in federal legislation.

Self-deportation and return should take about a week, Pence says. Guest workers would receive a "W visa," a wallet-size biometric card that can be swiped to verify employment eligibility.

Market demand would determine the number of visas allowed during the first three years of the program. After that, the Department of Labor would set limits. Workers could stay in the country for up to six years before returning home or applying for citizenship through a separate process.

Like the Senate bill, Pence’s proposal contains employer sanctions and requires that they utilize a national employment verification system. Pence didn’t have an estimate on the cost to companies.

"Employer enforcement is the key," says Pence, whose grandfather is an Irish immigrant. "Once in place, jobs for illegal aliens will dry up. Why hire an illegal alien when you can hire a legal guest worker and eliminate the possibility of a big fine?"

A business organization that is advocating immigration reform has doubts about the Pence plan. It’s unrealistic that 12 million illegal aliens will self-deport, says John Gay, vice president for government affairs and public policy at the National Restaurant Association and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.

Other issues that must be addressed are a lack of green cards—about 10,000 are available for low-skill workers each year—and the need to establish a flow of immigrant employees to maintain the U.S. economy.

"We’ve got a permanent need for these workers and it’s growing," says Gay, whose organization supports the comprehensive approach to immigration that is emerging in the Senate.

--Mark Schoeff Jr.