The arrest of several dozen illegal immigrants working on construction sites in Flathead County last year has prompted legislative action on the part of Whitefish Representative Mike Jopek.
Jopek has sponsored a bill allowing the state to revoke the business license of any company convicted of knowingly hiring illegal aliens for a third time, which would essentially shut such companies down.
The bill has created some unusual bedfellows. Jopek, a liberal Democrat, finds himself supported by both the Eagle Forum, a conservative “pro-family” nonprofit that often criticizes labor unions, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Unions.
“There is a place where the far left and the far right do come together,” Jopek says.
So far, his only opposition comes from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit small-business advocacy group.
In the past, businesses employing illegal aliens in Flathead County have complained to local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers that there aren’t enough legal workers in the valley to meet demand. This year, the Flathead achieved its lowest unemployment rate ever, while breaking records for the number of jobs available at Job Services.
But Jopek questions the notion that Flathead County has a labor shortage.
“We have a wage shortage,” he says.
By bringing in illegal workers, he says, companies avoid paying the wages necessary to attract new employees to the valley.
We asked Jopek about the possibility that the law could push employers to decline to hire anyone who even looks foreign, for fear of losing their licenses.
Jopek responds: “If [employers] have questions, they need to do a better job of working with the Department of Labor and Industry” to establish a potential worker’s residency.
Still, there may be a loophole in Jopek’s proposed law.
In 2005, according to the Washington Post, ICE won only 127 convictions against companies accused of knowingly hiring an illegal alien.
Last year, Kalispell-based ICE officer Don McPherson told the Independent that none of the Flathead companies he found employing illegal aliens were convicted.
That, he said, “is a pretty difficult charge to prove.”