Mass. Govt. to Confirm Employees' Status

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says the state will being checking the immigration status of all workers employed under state contracts.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Immigration is becoming a contentious issue in Massachusetts. Last week, the news was full of reports about hundreds of illegal immigrants working on publicly funded construction projects. Now, lawmakers want to require contractors who do business with the state to do more to verify their workers' legal status.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports from Boston.

TOVIA SMITH: Lawmakers here say they are shocked to read in the Boston Globe that more than a third of the workers on some recent public projects have bogus Social Security numbers. Many of them were stolen, some from the dead, some from the living. And some were simply made up, like the guy who helped build a new jail offering his Social Security number as 666-66-6666.

BRUCE TARR: I can tell you, not only was there a sense of surprise, there was a sense of outrage.

SMITH: State Senator Bruce Tarr is cosponsoring the bill to require contractors to verify their workers' Social Security numbers before bidding on a state contract. Violators could face up to $5,000 in fines and five years in prison.

TARR: We're taking tax dollars from the citizens of the commonwealth and using them to employ folks who are in this country illegally. And that is outrageous beyond description.

SMITH: Right now, federal law requires employers to look at an employee's documents and make sure that they "appear to be genuine." Republican cosponsor Senator Robert Hedlund says a simple online check could ferret out many illegals.

ROBERT HEDLUND: The average query response time is four to five seconds once you enter the data. So there is no significant level of bureaucracy added to the employment procedure here.

SMITH: If the process is that simple, industry officials say they might not oppose such a requirement. But many doubt that such a check would be that easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT)

SMITH: Darren Wagner is supervising an apartment building rehab in Boston. Wagner says it would be wrong to put the onus of checking immigrant status on contractors. And he says doing that would make it too risky for companies to hire any immigrants.

DARREN WAGNER: If you've got a guy that shows up and he speaks English and he says, I'm legal in this country, here's my Social Security card, I mean, we're not going to call and do background checks. We're contractors. You know, we're worrying about putting pipes together and getting the job done on time. If I had to go through that, then I wouldn't even think about hiring anybody with an accent.

SMITH: Like employers in many industries, Wagner admits to hiring some illegal laborers because he says they're more willing to do work that others won't.

WAGNER: The guys who pass them the 2x4s and unloading the trucks, we'll be real honest with you, are Brazilian and they're real good workers. They're here illegal but they do pay taxes.

SMITH: Immigrant advocates call the crackdown on illegal contractors mean- spirited. This latest proposal comes as Republican Governor Mitt Romney is also trying to expand state troopers' powers to arrest illegal aliens, as he put it, to make Massachusetts a less desirable place for them to come work.

Immigrant Advocate Ali Noorani says it's all part of the same political pandering.

ALI NOORANI: Beating up on immigrants is the strategy of the day and it's going to be the strategy of the election season.

SMITH: Lawmakers in Georgia recently passed sweeping legislation targeting illegal immigrants. Like Massachusetts's proposal, it seeks to hold employers responsible for hiring undocumented workers. But that law is already facing legal challenges.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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