WASHINGTON - Employers would face fines as high as $20,000 for hiring undocumented workers and have to screen all new hires as part of legislation that would grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., scheduled a test vote for Wednesday setting up the bill for passage a day later. Supporters predicted they would have the 60 votes need to prevail.
Frist predicted Wednesday that the bill would pass the Senate with "not overwhelming support but very strong support" and that a legislative compromise would be reached with the House on a comprehensive immigration bill that President Bush will sign.
"The problem is too big, with millions of people coming across the border and with hundreds dying as they come across the border," Frist said on NBC's "Today" show. "We as a governing body cannot simply turn and look the other way and say we're not going to do anything about it."
"It looks very much like the bill is on a path to conclusion," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., one of the authors of the compromise bill.
The employer penalties added to the bill on Tuesday by a vote of 58-40 were an effort to choke off jobs that draw illegal immigrants to the United States.
Employers who do not use the new computerized system could be fined $200 to $600. The system would include information from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security Department.
The $20,000 fines for hiring illegal immigrants once the new screening system is in place would be double the present level. Repeated violators could be sentenced to prison terms of up to three years.
Congress passed employer sanctions as part of the 1986 amnesty law, but they were never fully enforced and workers and employers got around them with fraudulent documents.
The Senate bill requires employers to check Social Security numbers and the immigration status of all new hires within 18 months after money is provided to the Homeland Security Department to expand the electronic system for screening workers.
Workers' information would have to be submitted to the electronic system within three days after the worker is hired. The Homeland Security Department would have to confirm the worker is legal or tell the employer the worker can't be immediately confirmed as a legal worker within 10 days.
The measure provides workers opportunities to contest the system's determination and to correct information that may be incorrectly flagging them as illegal workers. It also protects employers from liability if the screening system makes a mistake.
"This is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented workers, making sure we can enforce in a systematic way rules governing who gets hired," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Tuesday.
Opponents said the verification system would take years to implement and complained that workers deemed illegal could still hold onto jobs until their appeals are exhausted.
The House passed a bill in December that would impose fines on employers of undocumented workers ranging from $5,000 to $40,000. But, unlike the Senate bill, the House measure would require employers to screen all employees - an estimated 140 million people - instead of only new hires.