JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri businesses are about to get a shove toward a federal database for screening newly hired employees for illegal immigrants. And cities will risk getting punished if they become havens for illegal immigrants.
Those new laws taking effect Thursday are part of a broader effort by Missouri lawmakers to crack down on illegal immigrants and those who employ them.
Several new Missouri laws take effect Thursday. Here’s a look at some of them:
All public employers and those with private businesses with government contracts worth more than $5,000, receiving state loans or getting tax breaks must use the federal E-Verify database to screen new hires. Employers caught “knowingly” hiring an illegal immigrant risk losing their business licenses, unless they used E-Verify.
Cities are ineligible for state grants if they adopt an order or ordinance that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities, bars immigration status verification or declares illegal immigrants can live within the city.
Missouri’s minimum hourly pay goes up by 40 cents to $7.05, or about 6 percent. A 2006 ballot measure requires the minimum wage to increase with the national Consumer Price Index.
Half of Social Security and certain pension and retirement benefits are exempt from state income taxes up to a total income of $85,000 for individuals and $100,000 for couples. The tax break covers disability benefits for everyone and retirement money for those who are at least 62 years old.
Beef producers and ranchers will be eligible for a tax credit to hold onto their cattle longer. The bill gives a tax break to farmers who sell their cattle later, after the animals weigh 450 pounds, which is about when they have been weaned from milk. It’s designed to help develop a cattle feeding industry in Missouri that generally has centered farther west.
Homeowners can deduct from their taxes the full cost of audits to determine the energy efficiency of their residence. The reviews must be conducted by an auditor certified by the Department of Natural Resources.
Starting in 2009, public employers — including state and local governments — must use the E-Verify database that searches records from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether someone can work.
Private businesses won’t have to use the database unless they have a government contract worth more than $5,000, receive state loans or tax breaks, or have been caught hiring an illegal immigrant.
But even those that don’t have to use E-Verify will have a big incentive to start. Employers caught “knowingly” hiring an illegal immigrant risk losing their business licenses, unless they had used E-Verify to screen their new hires.
Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who helped draft the law, said lawmakers showed foresight in going after illegal immigrants at cusp of the recession.
Federal statistics released earlier this month show the state’s unemployment rate hit 6.7 percent in November.
“It’s going to have a very significant impact in protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and jobs for legal aliens during this time of high unemployment,” said Kobach, who also was a top immigration adviser to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. “The state legislature’s timing was perfect.”
But employers aren’t so enamored.
The immigration provisions were a sticking point between a legislature ready to levy big punishments and a business community worried about the fallout. Trent Summers, with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said some businesses are still worried what the law is going to require.
“I don’t think it’s overly burdensome, but we would like to see the employer requirement be as little as possible,” said Summers, the chamber’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs. “We don’t think employers should be in the position of acting as immigration agents.”
The Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimates from census data that 35,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants live in Missouri, roughly the equivalent of the populations of Cape Girardeau to St. Charles. Missouri is projected to have less than 1 percent of the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.
About a dozen states require that some employers use E-Verify, with Arizona and Mississippi going the furthest in mandating it for all.
The federal database was created in 1996 as an electronic way for determining whether employees can work in the U.S. But misspelled names, last names entered as middle names and outdated information have led to mistakes.
Advocated for immigrants also contend employer misuse of the database has made legal immigrants unwilling to work in states pushing for the use of E-Verify, hurting those economies. Businesses aren’t supposed to use the database to screen job applicants or check their existing work forces.
Jennifer Rafanan, the executive director for Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said that companies have misapplied E-Verify to discriminate and to racially profile.
“Programs like this can be misused, and the privacy issues are sort of massive in terms of which employers use the system and how they use it,” Rafanan said.
According to the federal Government Accountability Office, about 92 percent of all E-Verify checks are confirmed within seconds. About 7 percent cannot be immediately confirmed by the Social Security databases, and about 1 percent can’t be confirmed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Besides E-Verify requirements, the immigration law also blocks state grants from going to any Missouri city that adopts “sanctuary” policies and refuses to cooperate with immigration authorities.
A “sanctuary policy” is an order or ordinance that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities, bars immigration status verification or declares illegal immigrants can live within the city.
To enforce the ban, a lawmaker can ask the attorney general’s office to determine whether a town is a sanctuary city before money is awarded or after a Missouri resident complains.
It’s unclear if any municipalities would be affected, but lawmakers have speculated it could entangle Kansas City. Kobach said some suspect the Kansas City Police Department could have informal sanctuary policies and that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a complaint is filed against the municipality.
But Rafanan, who said Missouri has no sanctuary cities, said the police department’s policies already have been examined by critics.
The police department told a special House committee studying illegal immigration that it has tried to develop trust in the city’s immigrant communities and that illegal immigrants will not be detained or deported for coming forward to provide information to law enforcement.
Incoming Attorney General Chris Koster, who sponsored similar immigration legislation while in the Senate, said he isn’t aware of anyone planning to accuse a Missouri city of implementing sanctuary policies.
When asked if he thinks Kansas City is a sanctuary city, Koster said his opinion wouldn’t affect the office’s legal decision.
“It is an objective question that would have to be answered through a more researched inquiry,” Koster said. “It’s not a subjective standard.”