Immigration measures come to the fore in Annapolis
Bills focus on employment, police training, jail reporting
Debate in the Statehouse over legislating immigration reform is nearing its annual peak as lawmakers wrangle with proposals to bar unauthorized workers from state-issued contracts and grants, to require state prisons to report inmates' immigration status, and to train law enforcement officers across the state to make immigration arrests.
While the bill to mandate Maryland police agencies' participation in the controversial 287g federal training program is expected to evoke the most controversy, the measure with the most traction would require recipients of certain state-issued contracts and grants to check employees through E-Verify, a federal, Internet-based system that taps into records kept by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
With more than 180,000 employers nationwide using E-Verify 3,000 of them in Maryland proponents say the program has proven it can help create a level playing field for businesses and low-wage workers. Opponents say E-Verify is fraught with errors and would overburden state agencies while failing to screen more than half of illegal immigrants.
Two bills in the House and Senate differ mostly in investigative requirements and how to punish violators. The House version, sponsored by Del. Warren E. Miller, would mandate E-Verify for state procurements greater than $10,000 while the Senate bill has no minimum. Senate Bill 844 would put first-time violators on probation for three years and revoke a business license on a second violation; House Bill 721 would withdraw the funds immediately after a first violation and bar the company or non-profit from receiving state money for one year.
E-Verify bills in both chambers last year failed in committee, but Republican leaders say pervasive unemployment and the stagnant economy will turn the tide in their favor.
"There certainly is a mood out there in Maryland that's different, of people realizing that we need to move forward with this," said Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship, lead sponsor of that chamber's E-Verify bill, which counts three Democrats among its 12 co-sponsors.
Some two dozen grassroots activists, immigrant advocates and labor union lobbyists have testified in the bills' committee hearings March 3 for the House version and March 11 for the Senate's. Neither committee had voted as of Tuesday afternoon.
Much of the contention has focused on the program's accuracy, with boosters and detractors both pointing to a DHS-commissioned report released in December. The report by Rockville-based Westat, Inc. found that E-Verify correctly responds to 95.3 percent of queries within seconds but fails to screen out more than half of illegal immigrants, mostly because it cannot account for identity theft.
Proponents include Help Save Maryland and the American Council of Immigration Reform, The Maryland Department of Transportation has conditioned its support on not punishing a contractor that had acted in good faith if it is discovered that their subcontractor was using illegal workers.
The Maryland Association of General Contractors offered its support so long as the bill applies only to procurements greater than $100,000 and eases "unduly harsh" punishments on first-time violators and after MD-AGC President Champe McCulloch asked delegates to disassociate him from the "distasteful" tenor during the House bill's hearing before the Health and Government Operations committee.
"The fundamental thrust of the bill is very simple ... [and] works very well," McCulloch said at the March 3 hearing. "I didn't say perfectly, because I don't know any systems that do work perfectly. But it works very well to help employers make the appropriate decision."
Opponents include Casa of Maryland, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Service Employees International Union Local 500, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, the Maryland Farm Bureau and the National Retailers Association.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is not taking a position on E-Verify but raised concerns in a March 3 letter to Miller.
The opponents cite chronic problems with SSA and DHS databases and the burden the legislation would place on county government attorneys and the state attorney general to investigate and enforce violations. Pointing to the experience of Arizona the first of three states to require E-Verify for all hires they argue that E-Verify would chip away at Maryland coffers without getting to the root of the problem it purports to solve.
"States that already employ E-Verify have reported that it results in businesses moving off the books into the cash economy, thereby depriving the state of much-needed income tax revenue," said Helen Melton of Casa of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group.
"... E-verify presents a dual threat to U.S. citizens and other residents who are lawfully authorized to work. ... It is clear that this program is not ready for use in the state of Maryland."
Both of the bills' sponsors are trying to steer the debate away from the polarizing immigration issue.
"We have groups that want to turn it into a debate about illegal immigration; that's not what this is about," Miller (R-Dist. 9A) of Woodbine said in an interview.
Kittleman, a workman's compensation lawyer, said he sees the program less as a way to fight illegal immigration and more as an effort to "make sure that employers and workers are protected."
Whatever the motivation, lawmakers have a number of kinks to iron out if E-Verify is to go anywhere this session, said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who is seen as having a key vote in the committee considering the House bill.
"The concept has merit, but the bill needs work," Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mill said in an interview, lamenting the contentious turn taken during the House bill's hearing.
"We'll try to take a clear-eyed, objective look at the bill and try to work with the merits, or de-merits, as best we can."