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City Manager Greg Burris outlines steps to implement the voter-approved E-Verify ordinance on a large dry erase board in the city manager's conference room at the Busch Municipal building. He says a number of issues complicate enforcement of the measure.
City Manager Greg Burris outlines steps to implement the voter-approved E-Verify ordinance on a large dry erase board in the city manager's conference room at the Busch Municipal building. He says a number of issues complicate enforcement of the measure.

City officials wrestle with E-Verify law

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By a margin of fewer than 200 votes, Springfield citizens have determined employers within the city must use a federal employment verification software system when making new hires.

But before company officials citywide begin downloading the E-Verify tool, city officials are throwing caution at its enforcement.

“The entire concept is in question,” said city attorney Dan Wichmer. “Every city that has passed an ordinance has had it challenged.”

Wichmer said he expects the city to face lawsuits from civil rights groups, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as it begins to implement enforcement of the ordinance.

He pointed to a similar challenge in Valley Park in suburban St. Louis, where an ordinance denies business licenses to companies that employ illegal immigrants, but it protects a company’s license from suspension if the employer uses the E-Verify software at the point of hiring. The ordinance was upheld in 2008 by a U.S. District Court and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

Contention at City Hall
The Springfield ordinance authorizes the city to fine – and even shut down – employers found not using E-Verify, which is another point of contention at City Hall. Wichmer cited a law within the Immigration Reform and Control Act that he believes prohibits such fines.

“It is a federal issue. It should be solved at the federal level,” added Mayor Jim O’Neal, whose September vote against the measure helped send it to the Feb. 7 ballot. “This is not fortress Springfield. We don’t even have an illegal immigration problem in this town.”

Jerry Long, director of the Ozarks Minutemen organization that collected more than 2,000 signatures to put the measure before the city, said he understands some of the concerns that business owners might have about the implementation of the law.

“There may be a lot of fear out there, but I believe that it could be alleviated through education,” Long said.

Noting that the city’s 10 largest employers, including the city of Springfield, already use E-Verify, Ozarks Minutemen Communications Director Jerry Wilson said the ordinance outlines that fines can only be implemented on businesses that sign affidavits agreeing to use the E-Verify system.

Since most businesses only renew their licenses annually, they wouldn’t be eligible for fines or business closure until and unless they don’t do something they agreed to as part of renewing their business license, he said.

Long, who owns Joanne’s Pool & Spa and Meal Makers in Ozark, said he began using the E-Verify system in 2010 as a way to better understand the process while the group worked toward creating the ordinance. Long, the sole employee for each company, said the setup can take up to two hours. He referred interested businesses to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site, USCIS.gov, to start the process, which includes agreeing to the terms of use, watching a tutorial about how to use the system, and then answering a series of roughly 40 questions.

Federal contractors are required to use the system, as are state contractors and hiring agencies, Wilson said.

Darren Coffman, president of Benefits Unlimited Inc. at 3032 S. Fremont Ave., said he doesn’t currently use the E-Verify system, but he supports anything that could stem the hiring of illegal immigrants.

“I don’t understand the big problem with it. We all ought to try to hire people who are legally here,” Coffman said, adding that he is not worried about the penalties because he plans on following the law. “It sounds like I don’t have a choice.”

Fear of fines
Springfield City Manager Greg Burris said the city is now determining how it will implement the ordinance, and a number of problems already have cropped up. He said he thinks a lot of people may have realized that there would be issues with fines, but he doesn’t believe all voters knew the city was required to shut down an entity if it did not respond to complaints about use of the system within three days’ notice.

“If you have to shut down a hospital, a school, a City Utilities, how do you do that? There are many layers of complexity to this bill that I’m assuming many voters didn’t consider, whether for it or against it,” Burris said, pointing to the lack of a reset provision for violators who might sell their businesses. “What if someone purchases a business that has had multiple violations in the past and the new owner has one violation and then loses their license permanently?”

Weeks before the vote, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors came out unanimously against the E-Verify ordinance, questioning the initiative’s legality, citing little evidence of a persistent problem and expressing concern for a burdensome small-business environment.

On Feb. 21, city officials expect to certify the Feb. 7 election results, which would trigger the city’s enforcement of the ordinance.

“We created a bumbling, bureaucratic, unconstitutional methodology that is going to drive businesses crazy if we enforce it to the letter of the law, and we are obliged to do so,” O’Neal said.

Burris said the city is considering asking the courts to review the ordinance and provide guidance on how it should move forward with enforcement.

Wichmer said the city would like turn to the Greene County Circuit Court if it wants help, and challenges would probably file through the federal court system.

“At the end of the day, I think the courts will figure this out and make it right,” O’Neal said. “I would hope that somebody steps in and the whole thing is thrown out.”[[In-content Ad]]

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