Effect of illegals policy is debated

No firms lose contracts over Arundel policy to halt immigrants' hiring

July 06, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Nearly a year after Anne Arundel Executive John R. Leopold announced that the county would no longer hire contractors that employ illegal immigrants, no ties have been severed with any firm the county does business with.

The order Leopold issued in August requires businesses to sign a contract swearing they do not employ people living in the country illegally and allows the county to end relationships with contractors that do. But the county does not actively screen contractors for illegal hires and will only take action if such practices are brought to light by federal authorities, which has not happened.

Leopold, who repeatedly mentioned the policy last week after a federal raid on an Annapolis painting company that resulted in the arrest of 46 suspected illegal immigrants, said his directive is serving its purpose.

"I think it is working well, and it has leveled the playing field and put vendors on notice that we are not going to tolerate companies who hire illegal immigrants," said Leopold. "Everyone has signed on and that gives us the immediate right to terminate any contract that contains falsified information."

Leopold, who has made his stance against illegal immigration a priority of his administration, said that before he issued his executive order, he was aware of contractors who previously worked with the county and hired illegal immigrants, but declined to identify them. He also said the directive was a reaction to a "general concern" about illegal immigration across the country.

He and his central services officer, Fred Schram, said that two contractors initially balked at signing the amended contract but then did so because the county threatened to cut ties. Both officials, who pointed to those cases as examples of the measure's teeth, declined to identify the contractors or comment on whether the companies changed their hiring practices to keep the contracts with the county.

But Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat who supported the federal raid in his district, said the effect of Leopold's order is largely symbolic.

"I think John was clearly making a statement with that executive order, but it's unclear what practical effect the order may have had," Cohen said. "It can be problematic when local jurisdictions are put into a position of trying to enforce federal laws."

Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, a Latino immigrant rights group, said the county government does not have the capacity to crack down on a problem that continues to stymie the federal government.

"It is very, very difficult to implement. We have an immigration system that is broken, and our economy needs workers. That is the bottom line," said Torres, who has also expressed concerns that the policy will open the door for discrimination against legal immigrant workers. "This is not the local government's responsibility, it is a federal issue. It is not fair for any local government to make decision like that."

Similar laws have been struck down by courts in other cities and states. Last year a federal court threw out a local ordinance in Hazleton, Pa., which sought to deny contracts and business permits to companies that employed illegal immigrants. The court ruled that the policy usurped a 1986 federal immigration law that forbids local jurisdictions from punishing businesses directly.

In March 2007, however, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt ended a contract with a janitorial firm hired to clean state office buildings because the company employed at least 18 illegal immigrants. But Blunt has also directed government officials to conduct random on-site inspections and retrieve documentation for all workers on the projects that use taxpayer dollars.

Still, Leopold stood by the directive saying it had been well-received by small businesses looking for an equal opportunity.

"I wanted to be proactive to try to take a responsible action consistent with federal law," he said. "The order has put vendors on notice that this is the way business will be conducted in Anne Arundel County."

steven.stanek@baltsun.com

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