Pa. mulling tougher stance on construction companies who hire unauthorized immigrants

A bill in Pa. requires construction companies to E-Verify new hires’ immigration status. Advocates worry that’ll create a chilling effect. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A bill in Pa. requires construction companies to E-Verify new hires’ immigration status. Advocates worry that’ll create a chilling effect. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A measure moving through Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is garnering pushback from immigrant advocacy groups.

Passed by a wide margin in the House this week, the bill requires construction companies to run new hires through a federal background check system that verifies whether applicants can legally work in the U.S. The E-Verify system effectively closes a loophole that’s enabled unauthorized immigrants to secure jobs with the help of fake Social Security cards or other paperwork.

“That is a real problem because it creates an unlevel playing field for wages, for businesses, and also has a detrimental effect on government,” said Lehigh state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, a Republican who introduced the bill. The bill is co-sponsored by state Rep. John Galloway, a Democrat from Bucks County.

Employers who skip the E-Verify step and hire unauthorized workers would be forced to terminate them and send reports on new hires to the state’s labor department. It does not specifically require employers to retroactively check existing employees, but there is a mechanism for someone to file a complaint that would investigate an employee’s immigration status.

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Critics of the legislation are concerned that will make employers less likely to hire immigrants, even if they’re here legally as well as lead to racial profiling.

“Construction is one of the few sectors in Pennsylvania where there’s actually good paying jobs, and it would be a real misfortune if people that have foreign-sounding last names or people that come in speaking with an accent weren’t able to access those jobs because of fear on behalf of employers or the hiring manager,” said Elizabeth Alex, a senior director with We Are Casa, a regional organization that works with the Latino community.   

Supporters of the bill say employers who hire unauthorized workers often pay them lower wages off the books, giving companies an unfair advantage over contractors who follow the law, especially when businesses are competing for work during the bidding process.

Paying workers under the table also hurts social safety net programs, including workers’ and unemployment compensation, said Mackenzie.

Construction companies with state contracts in Pennsylvania are already required to E-Verify new hires. HB 1170 would make that the law statewide for the entire industry.

“This isn’t anti-immigrant. It’s pro-worker. It’s pro-business,” said Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents more than 130,000 construction workers in the state.

A version of the bill is sitting in the Senate. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has yet to say whether he would veto the measure if it makes it to his desk.

“While he understands the challenges faced by construction workers, the Governor has concerns with this bill. He will make a final decision when it reaches his desk,” said Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott.

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