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Contractors May Suffer Bans for Illegals

AP | January 26, 2007
JIM KUHNHENN

Federal contractors caught hiring illegal immigrants would be banned from government work for up to a decade under sanctions the Senate added unanimously to a minimum wage bill.

The Senate's action Thursday, pushed by Republican senators, was this Congress' first foray into immigration regulation, and it prompted an outcry of opposition from business groups.

By a vote of 94-0, the Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would impose a contract ban on companies, even if they inadvertently hired illegal workers, from seven to 10 years. The ban would not be subject to appeal in court, but the federal government could waive it for national security reasons.

Companies that use a pilot electronic employment verification system would be exempt from the sanctions.

Whether the immigration provision survives final passage of a minimum wage bill remains an open question. The House version of the minimum wage legislation contains no additional provisions, and the Senate language could be stricken when the two bills are reconciled.

Thursday's vote came just one week after immigration officials arrested 40 illegal workers hired by military contractors in three states. Last July, immigration officials arrested nearly 60 illegal immigrants at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

"The vast majority of businesses carefully follow the law, but many of them unfortunately do not," Sessions said. "Some are even contractors who are working on sensitive government contracts. Let me tell you, we have a problem."

Over the past year, immigration officials have placed a priority on cracking down on illegal workers at military installations and other places considered critical to national security.

But business groups mobilized Thursday in an attempt to kill Sessions' amendment, saying its reach would go far beyond military contractors and military installations.

"The Sessions amendments are comparable to using the nuclear option for a paperwork violation," wrote Jeffrey D. Shoaf of the Associated General Contractors of America. "These amendments will have ramifications well beyond immigration law, and would open the floodgates to using the procurement system as an enforcement mechanism for even first time paperwork violations."

Among those voicing opposition were the American Meat Institute. Over the years, meat packing plants have been frequent targets of immigration raids. Others who signed on to a letter of opposition included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Homebuilders and the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Critics objected that the provision did not give businesses the opportunity to appeal the ban in court and said the national security waiver would place small businesses at a disadvantage.

"Who's going to get the waiver and who's going to get punished?" asked Angelo Amador of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of a business immigration working group. "They will go after the small businesses."

Earlier Thursday, the Senate defeated an effort to require every state to raise its minimum wage by $2.10 an hour, even if a state's minimum wage exceeds the federal wage floor. Democrats said the Republican proposal was designed to kill underlying minimum wage legislation.

The proposed minimum wage increase under consideration in the Senate would raise the wage floor from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. That increase would have no effect in eight states that already have wage floors of $7.25 or higher. Another two states have scheduled minimum wage increases that would place them above the proposed federal floor.

Eighteen other states have higher minimum wages than the current federal floor, but not as high as the $7.25 in the proposed legislation.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who offered the amendment requiring the states to act, argued that the $2.10 an hour increase should apply to all states.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called DeMint's amendment a ploy "intended to give senators in high minimum wage states an uncomfortable vote today not to raise wages for hardworking Americans."

The DeMint amendment failed on a 76-18 vote.

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