For years, activists against illegal immigration pushed cities across California to adopt ordinances ordering businesses to verify that their employees were eligible to work in the U.S.
Several cities, including Temecula, Murrieta and Lake Elsinore, complied and required businesses to enroll in E-Verify, an online program that uses federal databases to check the immigration status of workers. Those that refused could face fines or revocation of their business licenses.
But those victories appear to have been wiped out this month with legislation signed into law that prohibits the state, cities and counties from mandating that private employers use E-Verify.
"It's very disappointing when you spend all the time, you go to your elected representatives and you get them to do something, and then at the higher level they squash you," said Ted Wegener, founder of the Inland Empire-based Conservative Activists. The group pushed for E-Verify ordinances in Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties.
Cities that adopted such rules are now preparing to comply with the new state law.
"Norco is simply going to repeal their ordinance," City Atty. John Harper said. "I don't think there's any other choice in there."
Harper and city officials in Temecula and Murrieta said that no businesses had been cited or had their business licenses revoked. Murrieta, which late last year adopted its E-Verify ordinance under pressure from residents, allowed people to file complaints if they believed a business was hiring undocumented workers.
But Brian Ambrose, a senior analyst in the city manager's office, said, "We have not received a single phone call…. We did not believe there was ever a problem with illegal immigration here in Murrieta."
In San Juan Capistrano, which mandated the use of the program for some contractors, officials said the new law would require only a minor adjustment to remove the E-Verify requirement from contracts.
Those who sought the state law in reaction to the growing number of localities adopting mandatory E-Verify rules said such moves were a distraction from a larger problem.
"As a nation, we are in such desperate need of immigration reform," said Sara Sadhwani, strategy director for the California Immigrant Policy Center. "While a handful of cities in California and a handful of states across the country have moved to mandate the use of this kind of program, it's very misguided."
The state ban received broad support, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Farm Bureau Federation, which questioned the accuracy of the databases used by the federal system.
Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Sunnyvale), who introduced the bill, said he felt that mandatory E-Verify was an unnecessary burden on businesses.
"It was costly, time-consuming. It's unfair for big businesses and definitely for small businesses," he said. "Why make a flawed system mandatory?"
Fong said the system often misidentifies U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. One such worker is Jessica St. Pierre, 22, who said she was fired from her job at a telecommunications company because her name was not correctly entered into the E-Verify system. It took her four months to get another job.
"I don't see it as being a help, but a burden for people that live here," St. Pierre said. "This system here is just not up to par in what it's supposed to be doing, so why have it?"
For Wegener of Conservative Activists, the battle now shifts to the federal level, where Congress is considering a measure proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and co-sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and others, that would make a system like E-Verify mandatory for all employers.
Wegener said that while he's heard some talk of challenging the state law in court, he doubts many cities will do so.
"Right now, most of the cities are pretty strapped for money," he said. "So taking on an additional lawsuit? I don't think most of the cities will."