SPRINGFIELD — Opponents predicted an ordinance approved on Tuesday requiring employers to check the immigration status of employees would face either a court challenge or a petition drive to have it repealed.
If the ordinance is implemented, it will require Springfield employers to use the E-Verify program to check if employees are legally in the country. Employers who don't use the system could be fined and have their business licenses suspended.
"We're pleased that the citizens of Springfield heard our message and agreed with us, but we temper the celebration with the knowledge that this is a contentious issue and people of good conscience can disagree," said Jerry Wilson, a spokesman for the Ozarks Minutemen, which spearheaded the petition drive to get the issue on the ballot.
"This has always been about one thing," Wilson said. "You're either eligible to work in the United States or you are not."
The ordinance passed by only 221 votes, about 1.4 percent of the overall vote. The close ballot does not trigger an automatic recount but Springfield Mayor Jim O'Neal, who strongly opposed the measure, said he expects it to be challenged in court, The Springfield News-Leader reported.
Marla Marantz, of opposition group Citizens for a United Springfield, said the group will "definitely" consider a petition to repeal the bill.
Wilson said legal immigrants should not feel threatened by the ordinance.
"We would say to those immigrants who are here legally, we welcome you and we are really mindful of the cultural diversity and strength this country has drawn on," he said. "We appreciate what you bring to this country."
Much of the controversy before the vote centered on the language included in the petition.
Former Councilman Nick Ibarra helped the Ozarks Minutemen with an initial draft, based on a law from Valley Park. But Ibarra split with the Minutemen over the group's insistence that the use of E-Verify be mandatory and the additional monetary fines.
City attorney Dan Wichmer has said the $499 fine the Minutemen included for the second and each subsequent offense is forbidden by federal law.
Because the proposed ordinance was submitted as an initiative petition, it could not be amended until the vote was held. Tuesday's vote means the ordinance can't be amended for at least six months and then only by unanimous vote of the Springfield City Council.
Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky already has said she will oppose any attempt to modify the ordinance, leaving that up to voters.
Wilson said on Tuesday he hopes Rushefsky will change her stance.
"It's not unusual for an ordinance to need some adjustment once it has been approved," he said, adding that the Minutemen hope to be a part of the process.
O'Neal said he knows of no specific plan for a lawsuit but expects one to be filed "immediately."
Barring a legal delay, details of how the city would enforce the ordinance remain unclear.
The Minutemen have said the screening requirement is meant to apply only to new employees hired by traditional businesses and nonprofits. But Wichmer has said the language appears to apply to anyone hiring another person for any reason.
Wichmer also has disagreed with the Minutemen about what constitutes a valid complaint. He said he thinks any complaint that references physical appearance or language would violate the ordinance's prohibition on complaints based on race or national origin. The Minutemen think appearance — including race or lack of English language proficiency — can be one of several factors used to form a suspicion someone is an unlawful worker.