Colo. Contractors Worried About New Immigration Laws

Tue April 03, 2007 - West Edition
Nicole Formosa -SUMMIT DAILY



FRISCO, Colo. (AP) Since stiffer state immigration laws went into effect in 2007, the level of fear has risen among those in the local construction industry who worry they could be penalized for illegal immigrants on the job site, said Dave Kooks, a custom home builder and president of the Summit Home Builders Association.

“For me, as a builder who subcontracts a lot of work, I realize that certainly I’m more exposed to the danger of being criminally prosecuted for having unknowingly hired illegal immigrants through a subcontractor, and that would be terrible — but it’s not going to strip me of my livelihood,” Kooks said, adding that some small local subcontractors could lose everything in a similar situation.

A Senate bill passed in last year’s special legislative session holds employers responsible for verifying the legal work status of a potential hire. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $5,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for subsequent offenses.

Since the law went into effect on Jan. 1, Koons began adding a paragraph to his contracts that essentially “passes the buck” to the subcontractor by requiring that person attest that all his workers are legally authorized employees.

Those subcontractors are the ones feeling the pinch from the new requirements.

“I have to turn down work because on bigger projects I can’t man them up,” said a longtime local subcontractor, who didn’t want his name published because he expects to have to fire some of his staff due to their immigration status.

The problem isn’t a lack of laborers — this subcontractor said there are plenty of people willing to work — it’s a fear among employers to hire them and wind up with fines, or worse, if the person turns out to be illegal.

“Nobody wants to be in trouble. Nobody wants to go to jail, but we can’t find, especially in the mountain communities, anybody willing to work except for the illegals,” he said.

The law also requires employers to keep a copy of the identification documents they used to verify the legal status of an employee for three years or at least one year after the termination of an employee, said Frisco immigration attorney Eric Fisher at a recent homebuilders association meeting.

The tough part for employers is being able to tell whether a passport, certification of U.S. citizenship, Certification of Naturalization or any other approved form of identification is the real thing.

“These documents would fool me and I’ve been in this industry for 30 years. They have the bar code and the fingerprints and everything — they’re great looking,” Fisher told the group of approximately 50 builders.

Employers can participate in a pilot program created by Congress in 1996, which allows them to verify the worker status of all new employees. Problem is, the program is somewhat flawed, Fisher said. For one, all the software does is check whether a name matches a social security number, and that can’t detect whether a hire has provided stolen information from the same person.

Also, the program can’t be used to screen potential hires, only people that have actually been hired. The first question in the database asks whether the person they’re verifying is an employee — if the answer is no, the program kicks the user out, Fisher said.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad program. It’s better than nothing, but Congress is actually debating making it mandatory,” Fisher said. “In other words, you would have to do that for every single one of your workers. Every single one of your workers you have now and every single one of your workers in the future.”

Even though Colorado’s new laws went into effect more than two months ago, Fisher said there’s been little, if any, enforcement because of lack of money, “but like a lot of laws on the books it doesn’t mean you should ignore them. You could be the first one who gets enforced.”

Alicia Donovan, who works in construction administration for a local company, would like to know that she’s complying with the laws, but she’s unsure of the processes she should be following.

“Not once have I gotten anything about what we are supposed to do. There’s been absolutely no direction, it’s really frustrating,” Donovan said.

Fisher acknowledged there is a lot of misinformation floating around about immigration issues, and said he spends several hours a day catching up on new laws and workplace immigration raids to stay abreast of the changes.

His best advice for local employers, especially those struggling to fill their crews without using illegal aliens, is to contact their U.S. Congress representative or senator. That way their input can be considered, as a potential federal guest worker program comes together.