Companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers would be slapped with felonies, stiff fines and could even be put out of business under legislation approved Thursday by the House of Representatives.
State representatives overwhelmingly approved HB2779, which would require every employer to file an affidavit with the state swearing that they do not knowingly hire workers who are not legal residents of the U.S.
It also provides money for state and local prosecutors to investigate complaints against companies and determine if they have hired undocumented workers.
Violators would be punished for filing a false affidavit. That gets around the fact that federal law specifically bars states from punishing employers for hiring undocumented workers.
Thursday’s 46-13 vote came after supporters beat back a Democratic alternative that instead would have required every employer in the state to use an online federal database program to check whether job applicants are legally entitled to work in the country.
But the penalties against wayward employers in the Democrats’ plan were softer than the Republican proposal.
The Democrats’ plan would have worked like this: A first offense for failing to check applicants would mean a $5,000 penalty, with $10,000 for a second violation and $15,000 for a third. And the Industrial Commission, which would be charged with enforcing the plan, would have the option of revoking a business’ license after a third offense.
Under the GOP plan, however, a first conviction of filing a false affidavit would mean a fine of at least $2,500 and up to a maximum of $50,000. A judge at that point would have the leeway to suspend a business’ license.
Three convictions within five years would mean the automatic loss of any state-issued license to conduct
House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said he feared the Republican proposal would unnecessarily bankrupt small and medium-sized businesses.
That logic drew derision from Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler. He pointed out that Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed a Republican-crafted employer sanctions measure last year because it was drafted in a way to let employers risk no jail time and “continue with normal business operations as if nothing had happened.”
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, the main architect of the plan, said the legislation actually would help many businesses. He said employers have complained to him they cannot compete with other firms that hire undocumented workers at lower wages.
“What is our obligation to them?” he asked.
In the end, some Democrats voted for the proposal, which now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix, said he was tired of prior measures that mainly attacked the people drawn to this country by the lure of employment.
“It’s about time the business community started getting beat up a little bit,” he said. That way, it might convince all parties involved to come together to find solutions.
Meanwhile, the Republican measure also would require the state and any firm that provides contractual services to the state to screen new employees through the federal database program, known formally as the Basic Pilot Program.
Local governments eventually would be subject to the same requirement.
Federal officials who gave lawmakers a demonstration of the Basic Pilot Program earlier Thursday said 352 Arizona companies operating at more than 1,200 locations already use the system.