JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri politicians say they sprinted toward the front in the national race to crack down on illegal immigration, but the front-runners still have a comfortable lead.
Missouri’s legislation includes mandates for employers and police and penalties for illegal immigrants and cities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The bill has a lot of stuff. But like students who adjusted their fonts to make a report seem longer, Missouri lawmakers made the bill appear to be tougher than it really is. They added less controversial provisions while pulling back and essentially splitting the difference when they ran into opposition to regulating and punishing employers.
And it’s a willingness to make businesses use E-Verify to check the immigration status of workers and to punish employers caught hiring illegal immigrants that separates significant legislation from what one think-tank executive called “political posturing.”
The E-Verify system uses federal databases to determine whether someone is allowed to work in the U.S,, but misspelled names and last names entered as middle names and outdated information have led to mistakes in determining whether a worker can be hired.
The system also is supposed to be used immediately after someone has been hired and not to screen job applicants or check existing employees.
Gov. Matt Blunt, who threatened lawmakers with an election-year special session if they didn’t pass serious immigration legislation, told reporters immediately after the legislative session ended last month that he’s satisfied with their bill.
“It will place Missouri at the forefront of the nation in good statutes that allow us to curb illegal immigration,” Blunt said. “We will be in a handful of states really leading this effort because of Washington’s failure to act.”
Missouri is more within a pack of runners, clumped behind a few leaders doing the most, but also well ahead of the stragglers.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of a Washington-based immigration think-tank, likened Missouri to being part of a “second wave” of states picking up on others’ lead.
“The bill puts Missouri firmly in the mainstream in the states tightening their rules, though not necessarily on the forefront,” said Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies.
But still well behind Arizona, which has a law requiring that every employer in the state use E-Verify. Gov. Janet Napolitano has touted Arizona’s law as creating a “business death penalty” because employers caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants face a permanent license suspension the second time.
It only takes an anonymous complaint before Arizona prosecutors can begin investigating whether a business is employing illegal immigrants.
Under Missouri’s bill, a business would lose its license the third time it is caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. But only public employers, companies with a government contract worth at least $5,000 and employers who have hired an illegal immigrant unknowingly would be required to use E-Verify.
The Missouri attorney general could investigate allegations that an employer has hired illegal immigrants after a signed, written complaint was made under the risk of perjury.
“It’s now reached a stage where employers are saying that: ‘We know you want to punish us for hiring illegal immigrants, but do you really want to kill us?”’ said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law.
Chishti, who is studying states’ immigration legislation this year, said that Missouri lawmakers decided to make employers feel pain for hiring illegal immigrants but not leave them awaiting an Arizona-style execution.
“Everyone is now competing to say theirs is the toughest in the nation — it’s the new badge of honor that states are trying to claim,” he said. “But it’s clearly not the toughest in the nation. The toughest in terms of its reach is definitely the Arizona bill.”
About a dozen states require some employers use E-Verify, with Arizona and Mississippi going the furthest in mandating it for all employers. And at least one state, Illinois, has gone the opposite direction by limiting how E-Verify can be used until database errors can be corrected.
That leaves Missouri’s legislation, which is awaiting Blunt’s signature, in the middle. And there are some advantages to staying with the pack.
Like runners setting their pace to those surrounding them, Missouri is blending in while Arizona is ending up in court. Arizona business groups and immigrant rights groups have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of that state’s law.
“If I were a Missouri lawmaker I might say let them pay the court costs, and in the meantime, require it for public employers and state contractors,” Krikorian said. “It’s the easiest thing to do that is also meaningful.”