Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Amendments Attempt to Muddy Minimum Wage Debate

Legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 by the year 2009 is moving forward in Congress. Over 100 amendments on issues including immigration attempted to dilute the consideration of the Senate version of the bill (H.R.2). While most of these amendments did not come to a vote one of the amendments introduced by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) passed (94-0) in the Senate version of the bill, Congressional Quarterly reports. Under the amendment, companies found hiring immigrants without work authorization would be barred from receiving government contracts for 7 years or for 10 years if the company had a government contract at the time.

Companies that participate in the voluntary Electronic Employment Verification System program known as the Basic Pilot Program would have the presumption of compliance and, therefore, be exempt from the ban. Employers in the Basic Pilot Program must electronically verify workers' employment eligibility with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) databases. The amendment will likely pressure companies to enroll in the Basic Pilot Program in order to protect themselves from the ban. The government would also be able to waive the ban if "necessary to the national defense or in the interest of national security."

Currently about 12,000 employers participate the Basic Pilot Program, which "has been hindered by inaccurate and outdated information in the DHS and SSA databases, misuse of the program by employers, and lack of adequate privacy protections," according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). Reports conducted by the Government Accountability Office and the DHS confirm that the databases contain inaccurate and outdated information.

Participants in the Basic Pilot Program include the Swift & Company meatpacking plants targeted in recent Immigration & Customs Enforcement raids, which demonstrates the deficiencies of the program. "While the employment eligibility verification Basic Pilot Program often is portrayed as the magic bullet that would curb unauthorized employment, the program has been plagued by problems since its inception in 1997," according to NILC.

Democrats staved off voting on other immigration amendments including another amendment proposed by Sessions, which would raise fines for all companies found hiring undocumented workers, an amendment to use the Social Security Administration Records for immigration enforcement introduced by Senator Allard (R-CO), and an amendment to change agricultural workers' wages introduced by Senator Chambliss (R-GA).

Project Voice, AFSC's nationwide immigrant rights initiative supports humane policies that protect workers and their labor and employment rights. The expanded use of the Basic Pilot Program raises grave concerns about privacy and employment rights. AFSC believes the best mechanism to address our broken immigration system is through rational and fair immigration legislation and not through punitive amendments to other bills which target immigrants. Bearing in mind these principles and concerns, the benefits that an increase in the minimum wage would provide to the nation's workers, leads AFSC to continue to advocate for a "clean" bill to raise the minimum wage.