The rising tide of unemployment in Wisconsin is drowning out the voices of those who support a bill setting tough penalties for companies that hire illegal immigrants.
State Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, and author of the bill, cannot figure out why.
“I don’t understand the rationale, especially now with the state of our economy and bleeding borders,” he said. “The federal government’s not dealing with it adequately, and it’s not fair to the people in this state who do go through the proper process to get swept up in this mess.”
Schneider’s bill is knocking on the doors of the state Assembly Committee on Workforce Development, but, so far, state Rep. Barbara Toles, committee chairwoman, refuses to answer.
“My No. 1 priority right now is to try to find out how to get people into training programs and into jobs,” said Toles, D-Milwaukee. “There are already a number of dislocated workers throughout the state, and now we’ve got the folks from Chrysler to worry about.
“(Illegal immigration) is a debate we need to have, but there are other debates that are more important at the moment.”
Schneider in February introduced the bill, which would make companies that employ illegal immigrants ineligible for certain tax exemptions, governmental contracts, grants and loans. It also proposes fining companies up to $10,000 for each illegal immigrant on the books.
The bill was referred to Toles’ committee in February, but there has not been a hearing and she said there is not one scheduled.
The illegal immigrant bill deals with a healthy work force just as much as any issue the committee is considering, said state Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin and co-sponsor of Schneider’s bill.
“This is all about jobs,” she said. “I think the issue of legal citizens having and retaining jobs is now more important than ever.”
But state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee and a committee member, said the bill threatens jobs.
“Immigration status is a federal issue,” he said. “The federal inactivity leaves state governments holding the bags, but I think this issue would affect so many industries that it would require a huge enforcement apparatus.
“How do you pay for that? I think it would actually cause joblessness to rise dramatically.”
John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., said although state bills dealing with immigration issues are usually well intentioned, the mechanics of making the bills law always fall short.
“You’ve got to tell us what the process is, and if it turns out that there are contractors intentionally violating the law, then we’ve got something,” he said. “The problem is determining whether that’s happening with any degree of reliability. The system out there isn’t really reliable.”
The federal Department of Homeland Security adopted the E-Verify system last year to help employers electronically determine the eligibility of workers, but contractors complained about the system’s accuracy.
The rule requiring certain federal contractors and subcontractors to use the system has been delayed until June 30.
Jim Boullion, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., said the federal government needs to set a uniform standard for states to follow.
“Nobody likes to see illegal immigrants take legitimate jobs away, but you have to find a way to enforce it that’s fair,” he said. “Our concerns on the issue would deal with increased discrimination claims and suits and whether entire companies will have to be held accountable for someone at a lower level being caught, even if (the company) went through the proper screening process.”
The bill does not get into those specifics, but Schneider said the topic is a likely candidate as an amendment.
“And we will talk about it,” he said, “if it ever gets to a hearing.”
Toles said neither Schneider nor any of the bill’s cosponsors contacted her to talk about a hearing.
“I have my own questions about the bill,” she said. “But I haven’t heard from anybody. I wonder how much of a priority it is for the author.”
It isn’t a priority for Toles.
She said: “This is just something that will have to wait a while.”