An Iowa House panel approved a bill Monday that allows anyone to report an employer suspected of hiring undocumented workers.
Lawmakers voted to move forward with the bill, which requires the attorney general, county attorneys and local police to investigate the complaints. They backed the measure despite opposition from lobbyists and the attorney general's chief of staff.
Rep. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, authored the bill, and said the goal is to create a deterrent for undocumented workers. Verified complaints would be reported to federal immigration officials, and employers could lose their business licenses.
"What it will accomplish is as soon as it becomes known that it's Iowa law, the people that work here illegally won't even apply for jobs," Garrett said.
The bill also requires employers to use a federal electronic worker verification system. Rep. Gary Worthan, a Storm Lake Republican and chairman of the justice budget committee, said that's a good goal.
"You have businesses that are taking unfair advantage," said Worthan, who is co-sponsoring the measure. "If they're employing illegal immigrants, they have an advantage over businesses that are doing things correctly."
But Iowa Attorney General Chief of Staff Eric Tabor told lawmakers that it is not the role of state, county or local officials to enforce immigration law, and the attorney general's office would likely need more staff to cover the responsibilities outlined in the bill.
"What this bill does is imposes a substantial burden on the attorney general's office and the county attorney and presumably on police to do these investigations," Tabor said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states now require employers to use the e-verify system, including neighboring Missouri and Nebraska. Some states only require public employers and contractors to use the system. The free system was used more than 17 million times in the 2011 fiscal year by more than 300,000 employers, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the verification system is flawed, as is the proposed legislation.
"It's really kind of a clumsy attempt to get the officers of the state of Iowa to get involved in enforcing immigration law, which is really the job of the federal government," Stone said.
And Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said the bill is reminiscent of controversial immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. He also said the bill could lead to racial profiling.
"That's a huge concern for the Latino community who is here legally," Mason said.
Garrett noted the bill doesn't allow for claims based on race, color or national origin, and he doesn't believe the measure would put a strain on law enforcement.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, from Clinton, is one of a handful of Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation. She said several people in her community asked her to examine the situation, though she is unsure if it's the right solution.
"I think it's a good conversation to have," Wolfe said.
Mason said this is a unique instance where his group is likely aligned with industry and agriculture lobbyists in their concerns about the effects the measure may have on employers. But John Gilliland, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said his group is undecided on the measure. A spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau didn't return a message.
Garrett believes the measure will gain approval, as a total of 38 Republicans and three Democrats in the House are co-sponsoring it. It then would move to the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.
This is based on a story by The Associated Press.