While Alabama and Georgia have new sweeping laws dealing with illegal immigrants, Louisiana legislators took a measured approach to the issue during the 2011 legislative session.
Only two such bills became Louisiana law and both dealt with efforts to make sure that jobs in the public and private sector are going to people who are in the U.S. legally.
Bills died that would have required citizenship checks on those applying for public assistance, going to college, getting arrested or becoming suspected of crimes.
Also shelved was a list of new crimes that included harboring someone illegally in the country, and transporting or stopping to hire or pick up passengers for work.
Louisiana law already makes it illegal to hire, recruit or refer for private or public employment, an alien who is not entitled to lawfully reside or work here.
The new laws put more of an onus on employers to check the citizenship status of their workers. Business interests from contractors to independent businesses to homebuilders associations worry about the new burden that’s being placed on their members.
Each new law sets out ways to verify status either through a nationwide data base or requiring employees to provide birth certificates, naturalization or citizenship papers and the like.
If that’s done and an employee is later found to be an illegal worker, the employer is protected from fines and other sanctions.
“We have kind of taken a piecemeal step,” said state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, sponsor of the law affecting public and private employers.
Talbot noted that Alabama and Georgia’s new laws are modeled in large part on the 2010 Arizona law that has features undergoing constitutional challenge.
One provision would have required people to carry their alien registration documents at all times and another allowed law enforcement to determine an individual’s immigration status during a lawful stop.
Alabama’s law has been called more restrictive than Arizona’s in several ways, including making it a crime for someone to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.
“I don’t think the Legislature is willing to pass this stringent of a law until there’s some Supreme Court clarification,” Talbot said.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said there were too many problems with the more expansive immigration bills that were proposed in Louisiana this year, including added costs for law enforcement and other agencies as well as potential legal challenges.
“It’s my hope that the bills signed into law would go a long way in addressing the concern,” said Edwards, sponsor of the law dealing with public contract work.
“If the jobs are not available to them (illegal immigrants), they are not going to continue to come,” he said.
Edwards said he hopes the new law he pushed would stop taxpayer money going to pay illegal immigrants working on state projects and programs.
“We want taxpayer dollars going to those who are abiding by the law,” he said.
Under the law pushed by Edwards, employers seeking public contracts would have to certify in a sworn affidavit that they use a federal system to verify the legal status of employees and none are illegal.
All subcontractors on the job would have to certify the same.
The system, called E-Verify, is mandated by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Information Act of 1996. It is a free Internet-based system.
Those who violate the provisions of the law could face termination of their public contracts and a ban of up to three years on further public contract work.
Talbot’s bill affects public and private employers. Under it, employers would not be held liable for violations in hiring if they use E-Verify or had copies of documents proving the employee is in the U.S. legally but an employee ended up being illegal.
Penalties range from $500 for each alien on a first violation to suspension of a violator’s permit or license to do business for up to six months on a third or subsequent violation.
Ken Naquin, chief executive officer of the Louisiana Association of General Contractors, said his group had encouraged Gov. Bobby Jindal to veto Edwards’ bill because of its “punitive” penalty provisions that could ban companies from work for a period and require repayment of costs.
“We are not for hiring illegal aliens. We just think the punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” said Naquin. “We thought the Talbot bill at least had a graduated ladder that was more reasonable.”
Naquin said the two new laws appear to conflict.
“There are different penalties, they involve different parts of the law. We don’t know what to do,” said Naquin.
“The bottom line is we are telling all our members to use E-Verify,” said Naquin.
Renee Baker, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said that for some small firms, E-Verify could be cost-prohibitive.
While the system is free, Baker said, some small businesses aren’t equipped to access it. “They may not even have a computer,” she said.
Baker said it is hard for small businesses to land public contracts and violations could bring stiff penalties that put their finances in jeopardy. “We have some huge concerns about that,” she said.
Louisiana Homebuilders Association officer Chad Deshotel said his organization is OK with E-Verify use for public contract work involving taxpayer dollars.
“We believe there should be every effort to document employees,” Deshotel said.
But on the private side, “it’s a big burden to put on business to make sure everybody is legal,” Deshotel said. “It makes all of us check out every single person who walks on a job site.”
Deshotel said there is a concern about added expense that may have to be incurred to have someone at businesses keeping track of workers’ status. “It adds an extra burden of paperwork,” he said.