AB 735 would put an additional tax on undocumented workers’ salaries in the interest of “employer security.”

Securing the Borders—and Employers: Pay To Play: Rick Keene wants to garnish undocumented workers’ wages, and charge them $1,000 for a work permit.

Assemblyman Rick Keene says his own frustration over migrant workers crossing the border illegally—and the federal government’s inability to enact immigration policy—pushed him to author the “Employer Security and Accountability Act” late last month. The bill would require undocumented workers to buy a work permit, and would allow the state to garnish (or set aside) 8 percent of workers’ wages in addition to taxes already deducted from their paychecks.

“We don’t have any security measures,” says Keene, a Republican from Chico. “People are coming in openly. Even though people talk about building a fence, that’s not working. So I wanted to have a way for those folks to participate in paying for the services they get here.”  

But even in its early stages, the bill’s got big problems. Critics argue AB 735 is dead—regardless of whether it makes it out of committee and onto the Assembly floor. The proposed law is patently unconstitutional, according to attorneys and civil rights advocates.

“When it comes to regulating immigration, states are strictly hands off.”

Michael Stamp has been practicing law for more than 30 years and teaches Constitutional Law at the Monterey College of Law. He says the bill’s critics may be right. “Simply put, immigration is the responsibility of Congress,” he says. “When it comes to regulating immigration, states are strictly hands off.”

“As soon as the feds come up with a better idea, an actual solution, I’m happy to drop the bill,” Keene offers.

One of the bill’s more controversial pieces is the 8 percent garnishment. The money would go directly into the State’s general fund. Keene says it’s necessary because undocumented workers contribute little or nothing to state and local services.

Research by dozens of organizations contradicts Keene’s findings. A study conducted by the National Immigration Forum, for example, reveals that undocumented immigrants pay out roughly $7 billion annually in taxes, subsidizing Social Security and Unemployment Insurance from which workers cannot collect benefits. In California alone, the study shows, undocumented workers fork out an additional $732 million annually in state and local taxes.

Keene’s proposed work permits would cost workers $1,000. The money would pay for a hotline that employers could call to verify a permit’s validity. Keene says the hefty price tag isn’t out of the realm of reason. “[Undocumented workers] are already paying hundreds of dollars for phony documents, so that cost should be completely bearable,” he says.

A Salinas Police Department spokesperson puts the figure much lower, at about $25 for a false Social Security card and about $75 for a high-quality, black market driver’s license.

The work permits would expire after three years if, according to Keene, “the worker hasn’t made progress toward gaining citizenship or federal work authorization.” But Keene says he doesn’t yet know what constitutes progress. “We’re just hoping Congress will get their act together by then,” he says.

Keene admits that the purpose of the bill is to light a fire under federal lawmakers to implement immigration reform. “If Congress decides to come up with a solution, we’re happy to drop the bill,” he says.

Stamp says politically motivated bills like Keene’s aren’t uncommon.

“The purpose of a law like this is to make a statement,” Stamp says. “The reality is, if you want this kind of change, it has to be done at the federal level. If this were to pass, the very next day, someone would sue in federal court and an injunction would be granted to stop its implementation.”

Even Keene seems to agree on this point. “This is a valid idea that I think deals with a lot of the issues concerning immigration,” he says. “But do I think politically it’ll make it through both houses and the governor will sign it? Maybe not. It’s just too early to tell.” 

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