O.C. city may screen citizenship

Times Staff Writer

With the federal government stalled on national immigration reform, a handful of local governments around the country are enacting laws designed to discourage the hiring of illegal immigrants.

Mission Viejo is poised to become the latest city to try to crack down on illegal immigration. Council members on Monday are expected to approve one of the nation’s first local ordinances that would require city contractors to check their workers’ immigration status with a government verification system.

The city will probably become a model for others, according to advocates for immigration law enforcement.


“These things will soon spring up all across the country,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Local governments are tired of the federal government’s failure to control illegal immigration. Local governments can’t deport anyone but ... what they can do is regulate businesses that serve as a magnet for illegal immigrants.”

The Mission Viejo effort differs from those of about two dozen local governments because it seeks to control the hiring practices of local businesses.

If approved, the Mission Viejo ordinance would require city contractors to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s Basic Pilot system, a free Internet service that tells employers if an applicant is eligible to work in the U.S.

It also requires the city to check the immigration status of its employees. The ordinance was unanimously approved on a first reading this month, with the backing of the Mission Viejo Chamber of Commerce.

Beginning in July, contractors who do not participate in the program would lose their city contracts.

Monitoring contractors was a natural for Mission Viejo, said Councilman Lance Maclean. The city of 98,000 people, which employs 107, uses contractors for landscaping, trash removal and street sweeping. The City Council last year approved about 50 contracts.

Councilman John Paul Ledesma said he conceived the new law after a resident told him about the Basic Pilot system. The resident had fought a day laborer site in Lake Forest and had urged Mission Viejo to pass an ordinance to limit loitering in an effort to clean up a similar site.

“We have the obligation to uphold the law,” said Ledesma, who is running for the 71st Assembly district in June. “We should not be part of the problem” of illegal immigration.

Some Orange County Latinos said they are concerned about the use of a government database for checking immigration status, contending that it’s outdated and has flagged legal workers. They also said the system encourages racial profiling.

“It’s bad for business. It’s bad for the economy of the United States,” said Ana Maria Patino, an activist in Laguna Beach. “We need to figure out that we need these immigrants to keep the economy going.”

The Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center opposes measures such as the one in Mission Viejo.

“Mission Viejo has no expertise to do what it’s doing,” said Mariaelena Hincapie, an attorney at the center. “We are in the midst of national immigration reform. Some federal eligibility verification system will take place this year. Local governments should wait for the federal program.”

Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the Basic Pilot program has worked well for most participants and the number of employers using it now totals about 15,000.

Its use is not required by the federal government, although last year Congress unsuccessfully proposed making it mandatory for all employers in the country.

“We feel it works great,” Rummery said. “You can use it and it’s free. You won’t invest in a worker other than one who is legally in this country.”

As few as three cities in the U.S. require their contractors to participate in Basic Pilot. Two other cities that recently approved similar ordinances include Inola, Okla., and Hazelton, Penn., where a broader ordinance is being challenged in court on the grounds that local government cannot enforce federal law.

Georgia and Oklahoma have passed laws for state contractors. Cherokee County, Georgia, and Beaufort County in South Carolina have approved the rule for their contractors.

David Adams, chief executive officer of Lookout Services in Houston, Texas, which helps employers meet federal immigration guidelines, expects more cities will participate in Basic Pilot to check employees, contractors or both.

He questions whether the program can handle the increased workload but thinks that more participants will send a message to Washington, D.C.

“They’re going to know that cities have had it,” he said. “They’re just fed up.”