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City Council Mulls Over Potential Lawsuits, Costs Associated with E-Verify Ordinance

Springfield City Councilmembers had a lot to cram into their Tuesday lunch discussion of a controversial petition that has made its way to the forefront of city politics.  The discussion is centered around whether Springfield employers should be required to use an electronic system to check the legal status of anyone applying for a job.  KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has details.

As written, the bill would force all employers to use a program called E-verify when hiring new workers. E-Verify is a free, Internet-based system that allows businesses to find out whether their new recruits are eligible to work in the United States.

Under the ordinance, if a business were found to have hired an illegal immigrant, then that business would face a fine and potentially lose its business license.

Right now, E-Verify is voluntary for most businesses across the United States, except in states like Arizona and Mississippi, where it’s mandatory. 

But the bill before City Council has raised concerns among immigrant groups and small businesses.  Here’s why:  some feel it is a racially-motivated bill.  And small business owners are worried that it would be a costly and time-consuming process that would take staff members away from selling or producing, and put them in more administrative roles.

City Council is facing its own headaches with the ordinance because there are legal and logistical problems with it. 

First of all, city attorney Dan Wichmer said regardless of which route Council takes, the city will likely face a lawsuit.

"I don't ever say I'm certain, because you never know, but every immigration law that I've looked at has been challenged in some form," he said.

Also, city code doesn’t allow monetary fines on businesses—so that part would have to be changed.

The city would be able to revoke the license of any business, or suspend business at any non-profit agency that was found to be in violation of the ordinance.

At its Tuesday luncheon, City Council determined that it has three options:

Option 1 is to send the issue “as is” to the voters in the Spring primary election—not a popular choice among councilmembers, because of the wording in the petition.

Option 2 is to approve the bill “as is,” without changing it, also not likely to happen.

Option 3, which was discussed at length Tuesday, would be for Council to approve the bill, and modify it after September 6.

And the list of potential modifications is 17 points long, which would substantially change the original petition.

City Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky says although the E-Verify program may be free to download, there’s no doubt that if this bill passes, both the city and small businesses will incur substantial costs.

"As we heard today, there are so many areas of this bill that are going to open us up to litigation.  So we're going to be having to pay lawyers, we're going to have to be keeping our staff working pretty well full time on this issue," she said.

The city’s permitting and licensing departments will have to expand to accommodate the ordinance, and the city’s finance department will be charged with implementing it.

Lastly, she says she doesn’t think Springfield city government, nor its private businesses, should have to fit the bill for enforcing immigration, which falls under the federal government’s responsibility.

"We're going to end up holding in our facility--that is the county jail--prisoners that we are going to hold for the federal government while their immigration status is being determined," she said.

She’s also worried about how it will affect the local economy.

Rushefsky and May Jim O’Neal both agreed that the ordinance puts City Council between a rock and a hard spot.

There is a fourth option:  to pass it, then immediately repeal it. Mayor Jim O’Neal said at the luncheon that he’s not entirely comfortable with that option, because it cheapens the initiative petition process.  

The group that submitted the petition is Ozarks Minutemen, a group that says on its website that one of its main goals is to “prevent further damage to our communities, our economies, and our way of life by illegal immigration.”

O’Neal told KSMU he might try to work with Ozarks Minutemen to see whether they would consider submitting an altered petition if Council decided to repeal this one.

Council intends to decide on the matter Tuesday evening.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.