New requirements in store for smaller businesses under Georgia immigration law

Starting Monday tens of thousands of Georgia businesses must start complying with a state law aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from getting jobs here.

Georgia’s law — also known as House Bill 87 — requires businesses with more than 10 employees but fewer than 100 to start using E-Verify, a free online federal work authorization program. State records show more than 27,000 Georgia businesses fall in that category.

Larger employers are already supposed to be using the system under the state law, which has been phased in since last year. Smaller companies — those with 10 or fewer workers — are exempt.

But that would change under the sweeping immigration bill the U.S. Senate passed Thursday. Senate Bill 744 would go further than Georgia’s law by requiring all businesses nationwide to use E-Verify within five years. The House Judiciary Committee passed legislation Wednesday that would require all employers to use E-Verify within two years.

Supporters say such a requirement would help drive more illegal immigrants out of this country. Critics worry it could stick small businesses with additional expenses and slap them with costly penalties.

Georgia’s Legislature adopted the state’s E-Verify requirements in 2011 as part of a comprehensive bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Jobs are among the biggest magnets that attract illegal immigrants here.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated 325,000 illegal immigrants held jobs in Georgia in 2010. Last fiscal year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Atlanta field office — which covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — audited 105 businesses for illegal hiring practices, arrested scores of workers and slapped employers with nearly $900,000 in fines, the third-highest total for any field office in the nation.

Under Georgia’s E-Verify requirements, cities and counties are prohibited from issuing business licenses to companies that don’t comply. When they apply for their licenses, employers must submit affidavits confirming they are using the work authorization program.

E-Verify works by checking information employees provide on a document — called an I-9 — against records held in federal Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases. More than 25,500 Georgia employers were enrolled to use E-Verify as of December, federal records show.

Skeetter McCorkle said the shrub and plant business he co-owns in Dearing started using E-Verify last year as required by Georgia’s law. The statute, he said, has made it harder to find enough workers for McCorkle Nurseries.

McCorkle pointed out that other states don’t have such a law on the books. By requiring all employers to use E-Verify nationwide, he said, the federal legislation could create parity among business competitors located in different states.

“If it is applied consistently, it is a level playing field for all employers,” said McCorkle, a board member with the Georgia Farm Bureau. “In Georgia’s case we are somewhat singled out.”

The National Federation of Independent Business — which represents 350,000 small businesses nationwide — has raised concerns about several provisions in the Senate bill. In a letter sent to Republican and Democratic Senate leaders last month, the NFIB said the bill needs to spell out where the money would come from to pay for any E-Verify training required for employers. The NFIB also questioned the $3,500 minimum penalty included in the bill for employers caught knowingly hiring illegal workers.

“That could potentially wipe them out,” said Ashley Fingarson, a manager of legislative affairs for the NFIB. “Our guys are struggling currently to stay afloat.”

Eileen Scofield, an Atlanta attorney who helps employers comply with state and federal immigration laws, said some of her small-business clients are worried about what could come out of Congress this year. In particular, she said, they are concerned about the additional costs that could come from training for and using E-Verify and the possibility they could make mistakes with it and come under government scrutiny.

“The ones who are paying attention are scared by it,” she said.

Scofield highlighted two ways businesses can stay out of trouble: annually audit their employment records and seek annual refresher training on how to use E-Verify, since the government sometimes changes the system.

Shawn Hanley, the vice chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said he supports making all employers use E-Verify, including the smaller ones not covered by Georgia’s law. Created by HB 87, his board helps enforce several parts of Georgia’s immigration laws, including one that requires state and local government agencies to use E-Verify.

“If you are a small restaurant [or] if you are a landscaping company, as a good example, you might have 10 illegals working for you,” he said. “There is always somebody trying to get around the taxman — they are always trying to get around local taxes and federal taxes. And I think it is a very good thing if we had E-Verify for everybody.”

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