By Stephen Dinan
April 29, 2013
The debate is raging over whether the latest immigration bill is an amnesty for illegal immigrants, but one part is clear: The legislation would forgive businesses that have employed those immigrants illegally.
Employers who have allowed illegal immigrants to work off the books can come forward safely and provide their work history without fear of prosecution, and businesses that knowingly employed someone using a bogus or stolen Social Security number likewise would get a pass, according to an analysis of the bill by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that wants a crackdown on immigration.
“The illegal workers at least have to pay a token fine. The employers of illegal immigrants who violated a whole list of laws themselves don’t even have to pay,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the center. “It’s the business side of the amnesty that doesn’t get a lot of focus.”
Business groups’ support is considered critical to getting a bill passed this year, but attention has been focused mostly on a guest worker program and requirements that all employers would have to meet, such as using an electronic verification system to check potential hires.
Indeed, it wasn’t until business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, struck a deal with the AFL-CIO on a guest worker program that the final Senate bill came together.
The chamber said the provisions exempting businesses from penalties “had nothing to do” with earning their support.”Our focus in assessing the bill was looking to the good faith compliance and safe harbor provisions and other terms of the E-Verify mandate, the revisions to the high-skilled worker program, and the creation of a workable low-skilled worker program,” said Blair Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman.
The crux of the Senate bill, negotiated by four Republican senators and four Democrats, would legalize most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but withhold a full pathway to citizenship for most of them until after the Homeland Security Department takes more steps to secure the border and implements the electronic verification system for employers.
All sides are still combing through the 844-page bill, trying to figure out what it would do. One major fight is over how many foreigners would be let into the country as a result of higher caps on legal immigration.
The Center for Immigration Studies says more attention should be given to the free pass for businesses. It counts four different ways businesses get a break: Employers who have illegal immigrants on their payroll can keep them there with no penalty; there is no assessment of back taxes for their employees who worked off the books; those who paid unfair wages will not be prosecuted; and those who aided fraud by accepting bogus Social Security numbers won’t face a penalty.
“It lets businesses that knowingly violated the law off the hook,” Mr. Krikorian said. “If they were not withholding payroll taxes, they’re held harmless. If they were violating labor laws, they’re held harmless. So this is a boon for crooked business.”
The word “amnesty” itself is loaded. The bill’s backers argue that it isn’t an amnesty for illegal immigrants because it imposes a penalty of a long wait for citizenship and a nominal fine. Opponents say illegal immigrants are almost immediately safe from deportation, which amounts to an amnesty.
The backers appear to be winning the public relations battle. A poll by MWR Strategies, released last week, found that 38 percent of voters labeled the Senate bill as “immigration reform,” compared with 30 percent who labeled it “amnesty.”
What to do about businesses that hire illegal immigrants has long been a sticking point in the debate.
The last time Congress granted an amnesty, in 1986, lawmakers legalized millions of immigrants but vowed to secure the borders and crack down on businesses that were magnets for the flow of people.
Knowingly hiring illegal immigrants became illegal and is punishable by fines ranging from $250 per employee for a first offense up to $10,000 per employee for a third offense. If prosecutors can demonstrate a pattern, employers can face up to six months in jail.
The current bill again promises to crack down on employers with fines and the potential for jail time.
Numbers are difficult to come by, but the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 55 percent to 60 percent of illegal immigrants are working on the books, which means their taxes are being paid — though they are credited to bogus or stolen Social Security numbers.
The Obama administration has stepped up enforcement against employers compared with its predecessor, conducting far more reviews of businesses’ immigration records.
In 2006, for example, George W. Bush’s administration didn’t issue any final orders imposing penalties on businesses. But the Obama administration in 2011 issued 385 final orders, for a total of $10.5 million in fines.Mr. Krikorian said one question is whether it would be worth the cost to the government to try to go after business scofflaws for back taxes or other penalties. He said that would be difficult given the short time frames written into the Senate bill. If Congress writes a longer-term bill that requires Internal Revenue Service audits of illegal immigrants and businesses, he said, it might be possible.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin voting on amendments to the bill next week, once lawmakers return from a weeklong vacation.
The business amnesty could prove tricky to navigate when the bill comes to the Senate floor. Amendments imposing penalties on businesses that broke the law could be attractive for many lawmakers but could upset the delicate balance of the bill.