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Witch-hunt now targets employers

by: JEFF ROGERS,

By Jeff Rogers

I'm a big fan of science fiction movies, especially the ones in which the creature that threatens the town just can't be killed. Like in 'Terminator 2,' no matter how many holes Arnold blows in the Terminator or whether it's blasted into a million frozen pieces, it just fills in the holes or melts itself back together and keeps coming back for one more try, but in a more dangerous form every time.

Unfortunately, we've got our own creature here in town that can't be killed. Remember that measure that would put 4' by 8' 'Legal Workers Only' signs at every construction site, levy $10,000 fines against construction firms employing even one undocumented worker, and mandate stop work orders until the site is deemed officially cleansed? The one that couldn't collect enough signatures to get on the ballot? Well, it's back, this time under the benign title of the Columbia County Fair Trade and Employment Act. But just like the Terminator, it's taken on a more dangerous form. Now it doesn't just threaten construction firms - it threatens every employer in Columbia County.

When you wade through the impressive-sounding legal language of the measure, it basically says that any employer in the county is subject to the act. The 4' by 8' signs are gone. But they're replaced by a measure that compels the county attorney to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of any complaint against any employer suspected of using undocumented workers, while specifically prohibiting the county attorney from exercising any independent decision-making or discretion in the process.

In short, anyone can file such a complaint. The county attorney must then submit the name of the alleged undocumented worker to the federal employment verification database. If the result comes back as suspicious, the entire county legal mechanism must, without being allowed to even question the validity of the result, turn cartwheels to put the employee in jail, fine the employer $10,000, suspend the employer's business license, and stop all work by the employer until the fine is paid and the employer officially documents there are no undocumented workers left there. That's in addition to the ensuing three-year probation period and possible permanent suspension of business licenses if another incident occurs, not to mention possible criminal charges.

Then, in its ultimate act of hubris, the measure forbids the establishment of any new tax to pay for the additional responsibilities it mandates, and directs that all costs be paid from the county General Fund. That's the fund that provides for much of the county's safety net for its citizens, one that's already strained to the point where the term 'safety net' is a misnomer. But then this measure isn't about compassion - that, along with common sense, generally gets lost in any blind pursuit.

The measure is a house of cards build on unstable ground. It is completely based on the reliability of a federal database that has already been proven to be fatally flawed. I know this personally. When I tried to file my taxes electronically, my submission failed because my Social Security number and birthdate didn't match what was contained in the same federal database the measure relies on. I've had my Social Security number since I was 16. I'm now 54. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I somehow became someone an employer under this measure would probably have to fire to protect from this measure. I'm just glad the Air Force let me serve my country for 21 years even though I'm clearly someone who should generate suspicion.

Put it all together and what do you get? A flawed measure based on an admittedly error-filled database where anyone with a grudge can mobilize the county's full legal machinery against an employer, while not allowing the county any discretion in the exercise of those powers. This is a measure that places every employer in this county at risk. And a measure that all but guarantees that no business in its right mind would ever choose to locate here, and could compel businesses already here to consider moving elsewhere.

Regardless of what the spin may be, this isn't about the rule of law. It's about a select group of people determining the future public and business face of this county, all the while betting that most people are just too busy or self-absorbed to notice that the creature came back and gobbled up their common sense for dinner.

Editor's note: Jeff Rogers lives in Warren.