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Bill: Hire an Illegal Alien, Go to Jail — Unless It's Your Maid

The bill would broaden the scope of employers subject to scrutiny — and extend penalties for violators to include possible jail time and big fines. Exempt? People who hire undocumented workers as domestic help.

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The latest bill addressing illegal immigration and the hiring of undocumented workers in Texas would broaden the scope of employers subject to scrutiny — and extend the penalties for violators to include possible jail time and thousands of dollars in fines. Exempt from the proposed rule? People who hire undocumented workers as domestic helpers in their family homes. 

House Bill 1202, authored by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would make it a state jail felony to knowingly hire undocumented workers in Texas. The bill would punish those who “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” hire or contract with an "unauthorized alien", or with someone who knowingly subcontracts with an undocumented worker. The maximum fine is $10,000, and guilty parties could face a stint in prison of 180 days to two years. (Riddle has also filed HB 17, legislation that would make being in the state illegally a trespassing offense.)

There are exemptions in HB 1202, however, including one that could make the proposal more acceptable to House Republicans concerned with the federal electronic employment verification system known as E-Verify. While several Republicans have filed bills mandating the use of E-Verify, others suggest it has proven flaws and could potentially act as a deterrent to otherwise capable and legal applicants. Riddle's bill doesn't specify E-Verify and says employers have an out if they make a concerted effort to verify status in any manner "that is more likely than not to produce a correct and reliable result."

Jon English, Riddle’s chief of staff, said E-Verify wasn’t specified because Riddle didn’t want to constrain employers to one system. “As far as we’re concerned, it will be up to whoever is prosecuting the case, what juries are going to say fits the definition of 'recklessly,'" he said. “But we’re pretty sure that if you make anything that amounts to a good-faith attempt to verify anybody’s information … that that would prevent you from being prosecuted.”

There is also an exception for domestic help. People who hire or contract with someone for work “exclusively or primarily at a single-family residence" are off the hook.

English said that exception was geared toward not “stifling the economic engine” in Texas, so that people who contract out for work in or on their homes don't have to vet everyone. 

“It is an admittedly clumsy first attempt to say, ‘We are really focusing on the big businesses,’” English said. If homeowners hire lawn-care service, for example, English said, they shouldn’t be punished if a company employs undocumented workers.

The exception for domestic help has some opponents of stricter state enforcement curious if Riddle, who owns horse ranches, was making an exception for herself.

“She actually doesn’t hire anybody that works on her land that she hasn’t verified the immigration status for,” English said. “Let’s just say she is pretty thorough on that."

At a news conference at the Capitol last week, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez said that if additional legislation proposed by Riddle and her colleagues to round up the undocumented in Texas passed, it would put between 4,000 to 20,000 additional inmates in her jail, carrying an additional cost of more than $1.2 million.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, one of the most outspoken opponents of the myriad immigration-related bills this session, said Riddle’s bill could drain his coffers and max out the capacity of his jail. He said more of his jail's spots would be taken up by state inmates — meaning he'd have to forgo the more lucrative federal detainees that help keep his budget in the black.

“We don’t have an accurate figure of what the impact is going to be, but surely there is going to be an impact," he said. 

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