Mar 10, 2006 1:14 pm US/Mountain

Owners Worry About Enforcing Immigration Law
By Colleen Slevin, AP Writer

(AP) DENVER Small business owner Gail Lindley says sometimes it's easy to tell when an illegal immigrant proffers a fake ID card in hopes of getting a job: It might be typewritten instead of printed, or have an extra layer of lamination to keep the photo in place.

But slick counterfeits worry her. She says an illegal worker could spend months on the payroll at her Denver Bookbinding Co. before the deception is unmasked.

That's part of what worries Lindley about a proposal before the Legislature that would punish businesses for knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant. Even if she takes all the required precautions, she still could have to spend significant time and money defending herself if someone files a complaint, she said.

"I don't want to be an arm of the immigration service. I don't have that training," she said.

Colorado lawmakers, facing limits on what they can do to fight illegal immigration, are looking to employers to help them crack down.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Crane, R-Arvada, would require companies that contract with the state to certify they haven't hired illegal workers. Their state contracts would be canceled and their businesses would be listed on a state Web site for two years if they're found to have knowingly hired any illegal workers.

Frank Trent, a manager at Allied Paving and Sealcoating Inc. in Pueblo, said the government has more resources to crack down on illegal immigration than any contractor.

"Even though we do what we're supposed to do, there's really no way to guarantee that the person standing in front of you is really who he says he is," said Trent, whose company has done paving and maintenance work for the state.

University of Colorado political science professor Michael Kanner said it's not new for state government to try pushing the job of worker verification onto private business.

"You have a problem that the public wants handled, but you also have a public that wants to reduce the size of government and taxes," he said.

Crane said law-abiding employers aren't the target of his proposal (House Bill 1343).

"What we're after is those companies who knowingly go out and hire illegals to reduce their labor costs. That hurts companies that are following the law," he said.

His bill would also require state contractors to cooperate with investigators if they are accused of an immigration violation, and the identification documents they accepted could be scrutinized.

Crane wants to amend his proposal to require state contractors to use a federal government database designed to detect illegal workers. Currently a pilot program, the database compares information provided by employees with Social Security and immigration records.

The program quickly alerts employers if a job applicant is using someone else's Social Security number or a fake number, said Chris Bentley spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

It cannot tell if an impostor has assumed someone else's identity and is using his or her name, Social Security number, address and other information, he said.

Only 147 Colorado companies have signed up to use the database.

Alsco Inc., a Salt Lake City linen-rental company with 12,000 employees worldwide, has been using the database for about two years and has found that nearly half its new hires in Denver were not authorized to work in the U.S.

If the database shows someone as "noncomforming," Alsco gives the employee eight days to straighten out the records. Most never return to work, said Brian Burke, Alsco's regional human resources director in Denver.

Burke said the company uses the database because of the difficulty in ferreting out fake IDs and to help avoid raids and fines that can come with hiring illegal workers.

"We're a large company and we could be viewed as a target if we didn't try to follow the law," Burke said.

Democrats say they are wary of the database because of accuracy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union has said the database has incorrect information on 2 percent of U.S. citizens and up to half of immigrants.

Democrats in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee refused to make the database mandatory in Crane's bill, but Crane said he is optimistic about getting it in later.

Rep. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill is meaningless without it.

"Either we do it right or we shouldn't do anything at all. The public is expecting us to do something," he said.

Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, supports Crane's bill without the database requirement. He said businesses faced with losing state contracts and having their reputations damaged will have plenty of incentive to follow the law.

He acknowledged the bill does not target those companies that hire illegal immigrants without filling out any paper work. But he doubts the state can do much about them.

"No matter what we do down here, we're not going to stop that unless we hired an army of labor inspectors," he said.