Illegal immigration drawing attention in Missouri legislature
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Illegal immigration drawing attention in Missouri legislature

Date: March 1, 2007
By: Cliff Ainsworth
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 348; HB 269; SCR 6; SB 180; HB 85

JEFFERSON CITY - Although her visa will expire on Sunday, Mary Smith (not her real name) does not plan on returning to Mexico.  The 38-year-old single mother of three came to the U.S. in October in response to a newspaper ad placed by a Missouri poultry plant offering $6.75-per-hour jobs.  While leaving her children was difficult, the prospect of earning in one hour in Missouri what she would typically earn in an entire day in Mexico lured Smith to borrow $800 to make the trip.

"I'm very sad because I can't see my kids.  These are the years they need to be with their mom," Smith said in Spanish through an interpreter.  "But I also need to feed and clothe them."  She said she sends $100 back to her children every week.  Smith asked that her real name not be used for this story out of fear of deportation.

But the harsh working conditions Smith encountered at the plant pushed her to quit and find another job.  And as she searches for a second job to help make ends meet, Missouri lawmakers are aiming to crack down on businesses that hire workers who have the same status as Smith: Illegal.

Indeed, since the U.S. Congress failed to agree on immigration legislation last year, many states - including Missouri - are taking the matter into their own hands. 

An array of immigration proposals have been introduced in the General Assembly, all aimed at tackling an issue which some believe is second in importance only to health care this legislative session.

"This is a unifying anger in state capitals across the country," Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, said of illegal immigration.  "The bottom line is that most state legislatures are somewhere between angry and furious at the federal government's complete failure in the area of immigration enforcement."

Bills addressing hiring, renting and admittance of illegals to universities are at various stages of the lawmaking process, as well as legislation to make English the language of all official proceedings. 

But even as Koster and other lawmakers pour extra effort into combating what they see as a rising illegal immigration problem in the state, they face escalating opposition from immigrant advocacy groups and other legislators who are struggling to balance enforcing the law with sensitivity toward immigrants.

Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Jackson County, expressed concern Thursday that Missouri is sending the wrong message to immigrants by restricting university admissions and making English the language of official proceedings.

"It's like telling people, 'We know you're different,' " Talboy said.  "When we start doing things to make sure people know that they're different, it defeats the very idea of what America is all about."

Bills that would prohibit illegal immigrants from attending the state's public colleges and universities and make English the language in all official proceedings were passed this week by the House. 

Even though some Democrats have voiced concern that the English-only measure was an affront to immigrants, Smith said such a bill might actually encourage her to learn the language.

"I like the idea because I would want to learn to speak English faster, rather than have somebody translate for me," she said.

Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, who sponsored the ban on college admissions to illegal aliens, said that universities do a pretty good job of screening applicants based on their immigration status, but that he wants to codify the process.

He introduced the measure because of the possibility that some illegal immigrants would graduate with a college degree, but would not be eligible for hiring.  "They're spending money (on education) that would do them no good as far as employment goes," Nolte said.

But Joan Suarez, who formed the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates Coalition this year to lobby the state on immigration issues, thinks the bill is too harsh.

"If they've gone through grades K-12, why deny them the opportunity to go to college?" Suarez said.  "Why would you crush the potential future for kids?"  A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibits taking immigration status into account when admitting students to grades K-12.

Anticipating an increased focus on immigration in the Capitol this year, Suarez and other activists and groups, including the Missouri AFL-CIO, pooled their concern into the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates Coalition. Suarez, the coalition's chairwoman, sees the surge in immigration legislation this year as unwarranted.

"The legislative attitude does not mirror public attitude," she said.  "The general public is much less interested and much more compassionate."

MIRA is urging legislators to reject most of the immigration measures that have been proposed this session. At the same time, the group is lending its backing to a resolution by Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, that would put the legislature on record as being opposed to "anti-immigrant groups."  Bray's resolution claims that many such groups are connected to "white nationalist organizations," but does not name any specific organization. 

"I'm concerned that there may be too much anti-immigration sentiment around," Bray said.  "It's the wedge issue of the year, how to divide people and play on ignorance and hate."

But regardless of the issue's divisiveness, many legislators say immigration is a problem that has grown too big to ignore, and are trying to address it in business as well as education.

Koster is centering much of his attention on the hiring of illegal immigrants, a practice he says has "changed entire industries" in western Missouri.  He has introduced the most comprehensive immigration legislation in the Capitol this session.  Known as the Missouri Omnibus Immigration Act, the bill would require every Missouri employer to use the Basic Pilot Program, a free Internet system provided by the federal government used for checking the immigration status of job applicants.  The bill would also make it illegal to hire or rent to an illegal alien, and require law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of detainees.

While the Missouri AFL-CIO is one of many groups in the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates Coalition, the AFL-CIO's Secretary-Treasurer, Herb Johnson, thinks the impact of immigration on business needs to be addressed - but with the focus on employers, rather than employees. 

"People are blaming the wrong person when they point the finger at the worker," he said.  Johnson believes the problem is that as the federal government fails to enforce immigration law, employers have too much of an incentive to hire illegal aliens at low, exploitative wages.  "They'd exploit their own mothers if they could," he said.

The Missouri AFL-CIO is supporting a bill offered by Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, that would bar the hiring of illegal immigrants by subcontractors working on publicly funded projects. Companies that violate the measure would not be allowed to bid on any such projects for 10 years.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County, would make hiring an illegal immigrant a felony crime, and slam businesses that do with hefty fines up to $250,000 for a third offense.

Koster is concerned that if action isn't taken now, it may never be.

"At various points in our country's history we have become addicted to cheap, illegal labor. We are again becoming addicted to cheap, illegal labor," Koster said. "Unless we remove the needle of addiction from our arm in the very near future, we will not be able to ever get it out."

The hiring of illegal immigrants in the state has already prompted one Missourian to take the issue to court.  A lawsuit filed last fall in a U.S. district court in Tennessee claims that Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat-processing company, hired illegal aliens to work in many of its plants, resulting in lower wages for legal employees.   A former employee of Tyson's plant in Sedalia, Virgina Bravo, is one of the plaintiffs in the case.  Her attorney, Howard Foster of Chicago law firm Johnson & Bell, said Bravo is not permitted to give interviews about the case.

While some Missourians live with the concern that they will lose a job or get paid less because of immigration, Smith sets off to her new job carrying the fear of being discovered by immigration officials.  But she considers the burden worth bearing.

"I'm deathly afraid," she said, "but the welfare of my kids comes first."