By  on June 6, 2007

WASHINGTON — Retailers are lobbying to modify or strike a provision from a comprehensive immigration reform bill before the Senate this week that would hold companies responsible for verifying the legal employment of their contractors' and subcontractors' workers.

The proposed legislation sub­stantially increases companies' liability, responsibility and the penalties they face if they hire illegal immigrants.

It is unclear whether Con­gress will pass a major overhaul of immigration laws this year. Congress is deeply divided over the legislation because it gives temporary legal status leading to citizenship to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

As the Senate heads to a possible vote on a compromise bill, brokered by members of Congress and the Bush administration, retailers are trying to find supporters on Capitol Hill to make changes to the provisions affecting employers.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, with members including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday urging him to remove a provision that requires corporations to verify the legality of their contractors' and subcontractors' employees. RILA president Sandra L. Kennedy wrote: "Changing the scope of responsibility [for corporations] to include contractors and subcontractors, joined with the new reckless standard of liability, is both unfair and unmanageable."

Retailers contract out a significant amount of services, from janitorial services to shipping merchandise to customers, and they argue that a new federal requirement making them responsible for checking the legal status of all of those contract employees is unjust.

"What the authors of this bill wanted to do was prevent unscrupulous employers from hiring fly-by-night contractors who might break the law and hire illegal workers," said Rob Green, vice president for government and political affairs at the National Retail Federation. "That is a laud­able goal. But we feel the bill casts a wider net than that, and law-abiding employers who have contractual relations shouldn't be held accountable for the actions of their contractors and subcontractors. Each employer should be accountable for their own employees."

The bill also would increase the maximum criminal penalty for a pattern of hiring illegal workers to $75,000 per employee from $3,000.

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