By  on June 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — Retailers concerned about tougher employer hiring rules in legislation intended to overhaul U.S. immigration laws were heartened when it stalled in the Senate, while organized labor was divided by the entire approach of the bill.

After ending his European trip on Monday, President George W. Bush plans to make a rare visit to Capitol Hill today to attend the Senate Republican policy luncheon in an effort to jump-start the measure. Conservative Republicans in the Senate have attacked the legislation as amnesty for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.

As the president readied his effort to sway members of his party, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) reiterated the desire of his caucus "to get this bill done. If we see new cooperation and a clear way forward from the Republican caucus, I'll do everything possible to readdress the immigration issue."

The maneuverings come after a bipartisan effort in the Senate for a comprehensive immigration overhaul fell apart last Thursday when Senate leaders, who had allowed two weeks of debate on the issue, failed to get enough votes to cut off debate and vote on the bill.

The legislation proposed a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants, strengthened border security, created a temporary guest-worker program and offered a path to citizenship for the majority of illegal immigrants who live and work in the U.S.

Retailers have concerns about provisions, including mandatory electronic verification of new employees within 18 months and a reverification of the entire company workforce within three years. In addition, the bill increased the maximum penalty for a pattern of hiring illegal workers to $75,000 per employee from $3,000 and held employers accountable for verifying the legal status of their contractors' and subcontractors' employees.

"There was nothing very positive in this bill for retailers," said Andrew Szente, director of government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents mass merchants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. "There were very onerous mandates for retailers as far as reverifying their workforce and there wasn't anything positive they hoped to gain from it."

Szente said there would not be much impact on retailers if Congress fails to pass the legislation, despite recent stepped-up enforcement efforts by the Department of Homeland Security, primarily in the meatpacking industry and other manufacturing industries."What we are concerned about is the prospective and retroactive verification and penalties attached, as well as the workability and viability of the [government's verification] computers, not that the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] is going to start raiding general merchandise stores," said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation.

He said the NRF did not oppose the bill, but lobbied to make changes to the employer hiring requirements and liability standards.

Pfister said a group of retail executives who are NRF members will have a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill next week to discuss, among other issues, their concerns about the employment verification requirements in the legislation.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said in a statement on the Senate impasse that Bush's proposal was "doomed from the onset" because "it abandoned long-standing U.S. policy favoring the reunification of families and failed to protect workers' most basic rights."

Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, which represents apparel and textile workers, and hotel and laundry employees, said of the impasse, "It's terrible for immigrant workers because we've got 12 million hard-working, undocumented workers in the United States, which our economy needs, who want to work and who have families. At the same time, Bush is revving up enforcement against law-abiding workers who happen to be undocumented and going after employers who employ them, and that is not productive either."

Raynor said Bush needs to "lighten up on enforcement" to bolster support for the legislation.

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