July 19, 2006

New Bill Cracks Down On Illegal Immigration

County Executive Steve Levy's getting tough on immigration reform.

Last week, Levy announced he would be filing legislation requiring firms doing business with the county to verify the legal status of their employees. The legislation would apply to all firms with county contracts funded solely with county funds.

"As the national debate over immigration reform continues to slog along, at the local level we are going to continue to act within the confines of our limited jurisdiction in this area," Levy said. "The federal government has essentially ignored its responsibility to enforce immigration laws and that has dramatically impacted local governments and communities. A frustrated public is looking to its local leaders to step up to the plate."

Currently, federal law requires employers to verify the legal status of employees, but Levy says on a local level enforcement is woefully slim.

Levy's new bill would call for stiff penalties, including fines and termination of contracts for repeat offenders.

Legislator Louis D'Amato, co-sponsor of the bill, agreed the county needs to get serious: "Hiring undocumented workers costs millions in lost tax revenues and leads to worker exploitation. We are not asking employers to do anything more than live by the rules and obey existing law."

Ronald Lewandowski, founder of the East End chapter of The Minutemen responded well to the proposed measure: "It's about time," he said.

But others disagree with the county executive's methods of solving a long-simmering source of discontent. Joe Gergela, Executive Director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, expressed concerns about enforcement of federal and state labor laws on a local level. Until the federal government has sorted through the multi-faceted morass of issues involved, "Suffolk County should stay out of it," he said.

Gergela explains that currently, "new rule-making" is underway, with a 60-day comment period under the Department of Homeland Security regarding mismatched Social Security numbers and how employers should handle the problem. "It is confusing to employers as to what they should do — certain actions could be discriminatory against workers — yet the government has an expectation of compliance."

Gergela said problems have arisen because of an increased Hispanic population, when, in fact, other nationalities such as Indians, Irish, Polish and Russian are also involved: "There's a lot of prejudice."

But Ed Perez, Director of the Levy's Office of Minority Affairs, believes the county executive is on the right track: "People in the business community are already well aware that existing federal law mandates this requirement. This law is designed to penalize those unscrupulous businesses that fuel an underground, illegal economy and put at risk both their employees and their business competitors who abide by the law."

Levy said there were approximately 10,000 county contracts for goods or services this year; the new legislation would apply to roughly 60% of those completely county funded contracts. The bill would also apply to subcontractors hired for county work.

"With this legislation, we are sending a message that the federal government's failure to enforce its own laws will not deter the leaders of county government who want to see one set of rules apply to all businesses — not just to those businesses who choose to comply," said Legislator Joseph T. Caracappa. "Businesses should never find themselves at a competitive disadvantage for honoring the law."

If passed this year, the bill would take effect for all contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2007. Enforcement an monitoring would be handled by the Department of Labor in conjunction with the county attorney.

Legislator Jack Eddington, who is considering co-sponsoring the bill, said, "This legislation would prevent dishonest employers from gaining an edge by hiring undocumented workers and paying them less than the prevailing wage."

Should the legislation pass, the county would have the authority to levy a $1,000 penalty for first-time violators. A second infraction could result in a $1,000 per employee fine for businesses under contract; a third violation might result in termination of contracts with bars against future work with Suffolk.

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