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Immigration reform: States pick up ball U.S. Senate dropped

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in Employment Law,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

When the U.S. Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation last month, the problem didn’t go away. Now states are stepping in to craft local solutions to problems related to undocumented immigrants.

Even before the Senate took up and then dropped the issue, statehouses had been flooded with immigration-reform proposals. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in all 50 states introduced at least 1,169 bills addressing immigration. That’s more than double the number of similar bills introduced in 2006.

If the first round of legislation is an indicator of things to come, employers will bear much of the burden for enforcing compliance with state immigration-reform laws.

Arizona and Tennessee enacted immigration-reform bills just days after the Senate quit debating federal legislation in June. New laws in both states mandate suspending or revoking the business licenses of employers of undocumented workers.

Similarly tough laws recently went on the books in Georgia and Oklahoma.

In Arizona and Tennessee, the federal government’s Basic Pilot employee-identity verification program will play a key enforcement role. HR groups object, contending that the software and databases on which Basic Pilot runs can’t handle the expected flood of verifications.

The program checks employee eligibility documentation against Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases. About 15,000 businesses currently use Basic Pilot, which has been in place since 1997. In Arizona alone, as many as 150,000 employers will have to begin using Basic Pilot on January 1, 2008.

Even with additional capacity, Basic Pilot may fail to weed out ineligible workers who use forged documents. That would make employers unfairly liable for hiring illegal employees whom they believed to be legitimate, asserts Society for Human Resource Management CEO Susan Meisinger. “There are major concerns that Basic Pilot’s accuracy is severely limited by the proliferation of fraudulent identity documents,” Meisinger recently testified before Congress.

Both Arizona and Tennessee would offer some protection to employers who accidentally hire undocumented workers despite using Basic Pilot. But in Illinois, a tough immigration-reform law awaiting Gov. Rod Blagovich’s signature would specifically prohibit employers from using Basic Pilot to deny employment until DHS improves the program.

Bottom line: Look for more state and local immigration-reform legislation now that Congress is done with the issue for at least two years. And—fairly or not— look for employers and the HR function to bear much of the enforcement responsibility. Your best bet: Make sure you document employees’ eligibility to work by thoroughly completing and maintaining up-to-date I-9 forms.

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