Though they appear to be universally outraged by President Obama’s executive order affecting millions of undocumented immigrants, Texas Republican leaders are far from united on how to use their own power to police unauthorized workers and the employers who hire them.
An estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants in Texas find plentiful work in the state’s booming economy, from manufacturing and retail to construction, landscaping, agriculture and janitorial services. They are often paid less and have fewer workplace protections than their authorized counterparts.
While several other states require private employers to confirm a job applicant's legal status using the federal E-Verify program, that idea has been a non-starter in pro-business Texas. The business lobby staunchly opposes the idea, and bills requiring it have never gotten off first base in past legislative sessions.
But with Republican Dan Patrick's election as lieutenant governor, and fellow immigration hardliners preparing to take their seats in the GOP-led Legislature, Republicans will face tough decisions about how — or whether — they will hit the employers hiring all those undocumented immigrants.
In 2009, Patrick sponsored a bill aimed at denying business licenses to certain employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers, and last year he authored legislation that would prohibit the hiring of undocumented immigrants as a matter of state law, while providing incentives for widespread use of the E-Verify system.
“For whatever reason — cheaper labor, a bigger workforce, less accountability or an unfair advantage to their competitors, some employers in Texas choose to operate outside [immigration and labor] laws,” Patrick said in 2009. “Federal immigration laws allow for the state government to address the employment of illegal aliens in relation to licensing laws.”
Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said he saw no reason why Patrick would change his tune as presiding officer of the Senate, but did not respond to questions about specific immigration or labor law proposals Patrick might pursue in the 2015 Legislature
Already, though, Patrick’s past views put him at odds with Republican Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, who gives the federal E-Verify program high marks for accuracy, but opposes immediately requiring its use in the private sector.
Abbott said in February that he favors requiring state government to use E-Verify first.
“Texas should establish the leadership position by employing this first as a state body, show that it works, set the standard for what it should be, before the state goes about the process of imposing more mandates on private employers,” he said.
The E-Verify system has been in place since the mid-1990s, after it became clear that undocumented immigrants were flourishing in the workplace despite the 1986 federal law making it a crime to knowingly hire them. Almost 500,000 employers enrolled in the program by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, and millions of work authorization cases have been processed.
The electronic system allows employers to match the work authorization paperwork, located on an I-9 form, with records from the U.S. Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
Detractors have complained about bureaucratic hassles and inaccuracies, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports on its website that in fiscal year 2013, work authorizations for 99 percent of the employees processed by system were confirmed within 24 hours.
Of the approximately 1 percent of cases in which a worker was not immediately authorized, a tiny fraction remained unresolved.
Uncle Sam requires federal contractors to use E-Verify on their employees, and at least 20 states impose it on various sectors of the economy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, a Bloomberg Government study of several states with policies impacting the private sector provided evidence that E-Verify has been effective in deterring the hiring of undocumented workers.
“Soon after E-Verify laws were signed in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, unauthorized workers in specific industries appeared to drop off employer payrolls,” the study found. “This prompted employers in many cases to fill positions with authorized workers.”
The issue is likely to get some attention in the 2015 Legislature. Two Republican state representatives, James White of Woodville and Tony Dale of Cedar Park, have filed limited E-Verify bills, but neither is yet willing to reach into the vast areas of the private sector where most undocumented immigrants work.
White, tearing a page from the federal policy manual, would require state government contractors to process their employees through E-Verify.
“If the Obama-led administration can do E-Verify, I don’t see why the state of Texas can’t impose that on their state government and their contractors,” he said.
White said he supports extending the plan to the private sector in concept, but wants to ensure the regulation of small business doesn’t “get out of hand." Dale said it’s “a good idea” for companies to use E-Verify but would want to see the details of any legislation requiring that before he could commit to supporting it.
Whether the new governor would allow such a bill to become law isn’t clear. Spokesman Matt Hirsch said Abbott would “consider any legislation that reaches his desk in the purpose of making Texas better.”
If efforts to extend E-Verify beyond state government start gaining traction in the Legislature, lawmakers can expect to hear from the business lobby.
Bill Hammond, CEO of the influential Texas Association of Business and a former Republican legislator, said his group supports comprehensive immigration reform but would vigorously oppose state legislation requiring Texas employers to use the E-Verify system.
“We would definitely be against that,” he said. “We don’t believe that’s the role of the state.”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.