SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Employers in Utah could be among the first in the country to face criminal charges for failing to verify their workers' immigration status, under a bill passed Friday by a legislative committee that now moves to the full Senate.
Several states require businesses to use the federal E-Verify program, but generally only under threat of financial penalties.
In Mississippi, employers who hire illegal immigrants can lose their business license, but illegal immigrants found working there are eligible for a one-year prison sentence.
Under the Utah bill, employers who fail to comply could face a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Bill supporters said enacting the measure would stop identity theft and encourage illegal immigrants to leave Utah.
"It's not a total panacea, but it almost is," said Senate Bill 251's sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.
About 184,000 of the nation's 7 million to 8 million employers use E-Verify, a Web based system that checks a worker's information against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases to determine U.S. employment eligibility.
The program is free to employers and some states — including Utah — already require public employers and contractors to use the system.
But E-Verify has some widely reported flaws.
Illinois lawmakers have already moved to bar employers from using the system, saying its accuracy remains in question. The online tool wrongly clears illegal workers about 54 percent of the time, according to Westat, a research company that evaluated the system for the Homeland Security Department.
Opponents of the Utah bill said including criminal penalties could clash with federal law and place an undue burden on businesses.
A federal judge in Oklahoma has already blocked portions of an immigration law there after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenged it, saying the E-Verify program is unreliable and unfairly imposes penalties on employers.
Utah lawmakers have long prided themselves on creating a business-friendly environment in the state, and even those who supported the measure in a legislative hearing Friday said they're still not sure they'll vote for it on the Senate floor.
Several business groups testified against it.
"I think we need to take a baby step toward penalties on employers," said Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican who favors mandating E-Verify's use. "It's just egregious at this point."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.