JEFFERSON CITY — State senators gave quick preliminary approval today to legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants and those who hire them.
The bill would require police to check immigration status after arrests; block illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits such as aid for food, housing or retirement; and withhold state money from cities with policies to not cooperate with immigration authorities, among other things.
It's the first immigration bill to be brought to the Senate floor this session. Senators endorsed the bill after barely an hour of debate. When the first-round vote was taken by voice vote, just five senators — two Republicans and three Democrats — were on the floor.
Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, joked that the debate was so much shorter than anticipated that it messed up his floor debate schedule.
Sponsoring Sen. Scott Rupp also told reporters that the quick endorsement was surprising. The Senate has no time limit and discussions about controversial bills sometimes stretch for days.
"I didn't expect to get it through in an hour," said Rupp, R-Wentzville, who promoted his bill as "a levelheaded approach, not heavy-handed in any way."
Rupp's legislation still needs another vote to move to the House, which already has passed a bill that would bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges and universities.
The Senate measure includes a less stringent version of that provision. In Rupp's bill, illegal immigrants born before Aug. 28, 2008, and who complete at least three semesters in a Missouri high school could still go to state colleges, as long as they don't receive resident tuition rates.
Rep. Jerry Nolte, chairman of the House immigration committee, said a person's lawful residency "needs to be a bright-line test" for determining college enrollment. But Nolte, R-Gladstone, said he needs to study the bill further before deciding whether to compromise on that point.
Joan Suarez, chairwoman of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said the bill is poorly drafted, tramples due process rights, turns every government employee into the immigration police and would be regretted.
"It's going to increase racial-profiling, it's going to increase tensions and it's going to make people feel very unwelcome and unsafe," she said.
Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, using census data, estimates that 35,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants live in Missouri. That's somewhere between the population of Cape Girardeau and St. Charles and just a fraction of the 12 million people the center estimates to be in the U.S. illegally.
Legislative leaders have made immigration legislation a priority for the session.
But the prospect of new restrictions on employers has prompted opposition from business groups. Of particular concern are bills to require every business to use the federal E-Verify program to check whether newly hired employees can work in the U.S.
Rupp's bill requires state and local governments, such as school districts, to use the database. Businesses that have a government contract worth more than $5,000 or that receive state loans or tax breaks also would be required to use it.
Private businesses wouldn't have to use E-Verify, but if they don't and are caught knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant, they could lose their business license. Under the bill, businesses found unknowingly employing an illegal immigrant would need to fire the worker and begin using the database.
Rupp said his version is an attempt to compromise — allowing private employers to decide whether to opt in but creating an incentive to do so.
Arizona already requires employers to use E-Verify, and several other states are considering legislation to do so. But E-Verify has strict rules for when employers can check the work eligibility status of new hires. The system can't be used to screen job applicants or check existing employees.
Another concern raised by critics is that misspelled names and last names entered as middle names have led to mistakes in determining whether a worker can be hired.
Gary Marble, the president of Associated Industries of Missouri, one of the business groups worried about mandated use of the federal database, said Rupp's legislation seems to be moving in the right direction.
"We have no problem with a state law that is more responsive, we just have a problem with a state law that is going to be more regulatory," Marble said.
Another provision would criminalize the transport or hiding of an illegal immigrant. Moving an illegal immigrant in Missouri or helping conceal someone who is not legally in the U.S. would be a felony carrying at least one year in prison and a fine of at least $1,000.