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Lawmaker wants to crack down on illegal hiring by state contractors

A measure filed Monday by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would beef up punishment for employers that hire undocumented workers and seek to do business with the state.

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State lawmakers eager to punish businesses that hire unauthorized workers will get another chance next session after a Georgetown Republican filed legislation expanding E-Verify requirements in Texas.

The federal E-Verify system, operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, screens for undocumented workers by comparing the information that job applicants submit to an employer with records maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.

On Monday, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed Senate Bill 254, which would require contractors and subcontractors doing business with state agencies to enroll in the system.

There is already an E-Verify law on the books: Schwertner’s SB 374, which passed in 2015 and requires state agencies to use the screening tool. But the senator’s new proposal goes a step further by designating a penalty for contractors who don’t use the system and assigning a state agency to enforce some of the bill’s provisions. Under the bill, the state comptroller could make a contractor ineligible to do business with the state for up to five years if the business fails to sign up for E-Verify or discontinues its use while the contract is still valid. 

“If we ever hope to make progress in solving our nation's illegal immigration problem, we must first address the jobs, benefits, and other factors that entice immigrants to enter our country illegally in the first place," Schwertner said in a statement. "SB 254 represents a critical step in securing our border and stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into Texas."

Monday’s  filing adds to the short but confusing history of E-Verify’s implementation in Texas that began in late 2014. That year, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring state agencies and the companies they contract with to use the system. But Perry’s order didn’t put any agency in charge of enforcing the mandate, and agencies and contractors operated on the honor system. Perry also said his order applied to new and current hires but that the E-Verify system is only used to screen potential applicants, according to federal law.

When Schwertner filed his 2015 bill, it was meant to codify Perry’s order, but it left some confusion over whether it also applied to contractors. A nonbinding opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton issued in March cleared that up, finding that Schwertner’s bill did, in fact, apply to contractors. But like Perry’s order, it didn’t have an enforcement mechanism.

That same month, Schwertner said he had “no reason” to suspect state agencies weren’t following the rules. But he also said that as E-Verify continues on its course in Texas, lawmakers would be able to address additional concerns over its implementation.

Though the senator’s new proposal goes a step further than previous efforts, it doesn’t extend to the rest of the private sector.

Schwertner said in an interview earlier this month that he thinks state agencies should first lead by example and that the private sector would eventually take note.

“I think the message will be very clear to all businesses that they need to follow what we as a state are doing, what our contractors and subcontractors are doing,” he said. “So if we can get something done without putting a heavier hand on business, that’s kind of the best way to handle it.”

As filed, SB 254 would also protect a business from being punished for not complying with the measure if it received the wrong information about a potential hire from the USCIS.

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Jay Root contributed to this report.

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