Businesses licensed through Washington County will be required to register with the federal government's E-Verify program beginning Saturday making the county the first in Utah to put such an ordinance into effect.
The ordinance is an attempt by the southern Utah's population center to curb the hiring of undocumented immigrants and it is the cumulative effort of five years of work led by County Commissioner Dennis Drake.
"I wish the federal government would step up and come up with solutions on this [illegal immigration]," Drake said. "But since they don't, the burden becomes one for local communities and counties to take on and so you look for the best way you can to solve those issues."
Drake said he offered the measure as a way to help lower the area's high jobless rate by driving away unauthorized workers and giving employers an opportunity to hire legal workers.
The unemployment rate in Washington County, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, is 9.9 percent among the highest in the state. Drake said putting the E-Verify ordinance into effect would help ease that number.
"There are jobs being filled by those here illegally that citizens would love to have," Drake said.
E-Verify is a federal program that uses databases of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to verify a prospective employee's right to work in the United States.
Homeland Security says more than 307,000 employers in the country use E-Verify. However, it is not a mandatory program only businesses that have federal contracts are required to screen employees through E-Verify. For most all other businesses, the program is voluntary.
State law requires all businesses with 15 or more employees to register with E-Verify but the statute contains no enforcement provision or penalties for violation.
Drake said local officials crafted the ordinance so it wouldn't overreach.
Only businesses that are licensed through the county are required to register. Businesses that fail to comply could have their licensees suspended for anywhere between 10 and 30 days. Repeated violations could lead to a permanent suspension.
The ordinance, however, only holds businesses accountable for registering and hiring legal citizens from Saturday forward. There are no retroactive provisions for businesses that already have unauthorized workers on their payroll.
It also, Drake said, complies with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that upheld Arizona's mandatory E-Verify law originally signed into law in 2007. That ruling held that states and municipalities that issue licenses have the right to suspend or revoke licenses in the event they weren't in compliance with E-Verify.
Jim Flohr, vice chair of Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, said the passage of the Arizona law four years ago lined up with the start of the Business Patriots Program.
That voluntary program was a way to coax companies to participate in E-Verify and only hire legal workers by offering them a chance to display a decal or logo in the establishment telling the public they were only hiring legal workers.
"The purpose behind the entire thing is to save jobs for American citizens," Flohr said. "We wanted to commend employers who do the right thing hire people here in the country legally."
The ordinance was passed by the Washington County Commission unanimously in October, but not everyone is sure it's the right approach.
Marina Lowe, staff attorney with the ACLU of Utah, said E-Verify relies on faulty databases and isn't a dependable indicator of a prospective employee's right to work in the United States.
But she also had concerns about provisions in the ordinance that allow people to file complaints with the county if they believe a company is hiring unauthorized workers.
"You wonder what would be the reason someone was suspicious of a hire other than the fact they hire Latino workers," Lowe said. "Anything that initiates the opportunity to engage in racial profiling should be looked at with concern."
The ordinance does say anyone who files a frivolous complaint would be charged with a class C misdemeanor.
However, the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce said it hadn't encountered any resistance to the ordinance among its 750 members.
Karyn Keanaaina, publication coordinator with the Chamber, said it would do an outreach program offering information for its members as a part of an E-Verify education effort beginning in January.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, is also planning to introduce a statewide version of Arizona's E-Verify law in the 2012 legislative session and questioned the need for an ordinance originating at the county level.
"I think that makes it problematic if a business is located in Salt Lake City, Orem and St. George, for example. How will the business manage hiring if every county has different ordinances?" Sandstrom said. "Since counties and cities are political subdivisions of the state, the prudent measure is to have Utah have an E-Verify policy in place that all the political subdivisions have to follow."
Drake said the ordinance would only be able to cover hires and businesses in Washington County and he welcomed a state law.
In the meantime, however, he said the county had to act.
"We were feeling we needed to do something," Drake said. "We live in a land of laws and it just seems to be in accordance with the law. We're just seeing what we can do to help with the issue."
O Download a .pdf of the ordinance.