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Umberg Aims Tough State Bill at Employers of Illegal Immigrants : Legislation: Under the measure, businesses that hire undocumented workers would face the threat of having their property seized. The assemblyman expects it to get broad support.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying illegal immigrants come to the United States for jobs, an Orange County lawmaker unveiled legislation Monday that would allow law enforcement to seize the assets of California businesses that hire undocumented workers.

Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) said he planned to introduce the bill later this week and expects it to get broad support in both houses of the Legislature before the current session ends in mid-September.

Umberg’s proposal would toughen federal penalties that have been in existence since 1986. Under his bill, businesses with five or more workers would be subject to fines for a first violation up to $2,000 for each illegal immigrant employed. If a second violation occurred, a business could be seized, much as law enforcement agencies currently take the assets of drug dealers. Third and subsequent violations would yield criminal charges and prison sentences of up to four years.

“Until we dry up the supply of jobs, we’re not going to deal with illegal immigration,” Umberg said.

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Republican leaders, however, said the proposal would only punish business while failing to recognize that government health and welfare programs are the most potent magnet for illegal immigration.

Gov. Pete Wilson has avoided the harsher employer sanctions. Instead, Wilson has urged the federal government to throw out requirements that the state provide education, health care and welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. But Democrats have argued that his plan ignores the economic lure of jobs.

“I think we need to get our own house in order before we start closing down businesses right and left,” said Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove). “The issue we have to address here in Sacramento has to do with the way our government provides incentives that lure illegal aliens to California.”

Pringle noted that the federal government already has monetary sanctions against businesses that hire illegal immigrants but said efforts to enforce the law have been curtailed by a lack of staffing. In addition, workers can easily obtain phony documents to convince employers that they are in the country legally, he said.

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He also suggested that with budget shortfalls hitting local and state governments hard, law enforcement agencies in California do not have the manpower to crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

Umberg disagreed with such reasoning, saying that law enforcement agencies would be able to recoup the cost of upholding the law by cashing in on seized assets. He also said his bill would provide “a clear warning” to all employers that “arrogantly and repeatedly” ignore laws against hiring undocumented workers.

Illegal immigrants, Umberg said, “are not coming to California to attend our schools, they are not coming here for health care. They are coming here for a job.”

Latino activists in Orange County, meanwhile, said the proposal amounts to another effort to “scapegoat” immigrants for state and national economic troubles. “We aren’t in this mess because businesses want to hire people,” said Zeke Hernandez, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We’re in this because elected officials like Umberg have not tackled waste in government.”

Hernandez also suggested that Umberg’s motivation isn’t so much to cure illegal immigration as it is to make a name for himself. “Umberg may be looking to run for attorney general,” Hernandez said. “I think he’s posturing like all the other politicians.”

Despite such assessments, Umberg’s bill has gotten the cautious support from some in the Legislature’s Latino Caucus. The caucus leader, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), has signed on as a co-author and supports the sanctions against employers but does express some concern that the bill could fuel discrimination against Latinos

“Discrimination can occur whether or not this bill is in place,” Polanco said. “We need to make sure there are adequate protections.”

To that end, the bill contains provisions calling for forfeited assets to go toward funding employment discrimination investigations, as well as general law enforcement and county social service programs.

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Among the items that could be seized if a business violated the law would be real estate, raw materials and products, equipment, books and records, as well as motor vehicles, boats or planes used by a business.


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