Small business lobby voices objections to Senate immigration bill

The small business lobby that fought President Obama’s healthcare law all the way to the Supreme Court is voicing major objections to the Senate immigration bill.

In a letter obtained by The Hill, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) pulls no punches with Senate leaders and members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, saying provisions in the immigration bill would weigh down small businesses with mandates and regulations.

“Instead of leveling the playing field for small businesses, S. 744 includes anti-small employer provisions and places significant new costs, bureaucracy, and regulations on small employers,” wrote Susan Eckerly, NFIB’s senior vice president of federal public policy.

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NFIB singled out the verification system for hiring new workers known as E-Verify, as well as limits on visas for low-skilled workers, as causing major problems for small businesses.

Republicans cheered the NFIB last year when it pushed a challenge to the healthcare reform law through the court system. The group’s critique of the immigration overhaul could bolster the case of conservatives who are pushing for major changes to the bill on the Senate floor.

“I feel small business concerns were not taken into account when they were working on this bill. It's not workable or affordable for small businesses at the moment,” Ashley Fingarson, manager of Senate legislative affairs for NFIB, told The Hill in an interview.

The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce is backing the Senate immigration bill after having a hand in crafting it.

But many lobbyists representing other business interests are pushing for alterations, arguing in particular that the limits on the low-skilled worker program are not workable for companies. NFIB’s letter adds to the building pressure.

The small business group is particularly worried about how small employers will be impacted by the E-Verify system. Fingarson said the system would not be “error-proof” and argued the proposed penalties for not following the guidelines “could wipe out a small business.”
 
“They may be rural. They may not have a HR department. Small businesses are going to have to deal with this new system. We can't have a penalty structure the way it is in this bill,” Fingarson said. 
 
In its letter, NFIB suggested a number of changes to the bill that it said could limit the impact of E-Verify on small businesses, including a “reasonable limit” on penalties, reducing penalties for first-time offenders and protecting employers from liability if E-Verify gives incorrect information on a worker to an employer.
 
Eckerly also noted in the letter that NFIB “has supported a phase-in for E-Verify of four years after enactment — any timeframe shorter than that is burdensome for small businesses to adapt to a nationwide E-Verify system.”
 
The business group took aim at the bill’s proposed W Visa program, arguing Congress should have control over funding for the new independent agency that would administer the visas.

Additionally, NFIB criticized the legislation’s proposed cap of 15,000 visas per year for construction companies. Fingarson noted that the construction industry makes up NFIB’s third-largest segment of members.
 
“We are raising that red flag,” Fingarson said, citing the limit on visas for the construction industry. “They need flexibility.”
 
The new visa program was crafted from an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. Other business groups have grumbled about the deal, saying it’s too cumbersome.

Members of the Gang of Eight pushed business and labor to come to the compromise, and are standing behind the deal as a solution to the disagreements that helped sideline the last immigration reform push in 2007. 
 
Fingarson said the NFIB is pushing for changes to the Senate bill, but wasn’t ready to say yet if the group would oppose it if it were passed without changes. She said she wasn’t aware now of any amendment to be offered on the Senate floor that would resolve NFIB's concerns.

“It's too early to tell. The debate hasn't even started on the bill. We are long away from July 4,” said Fingarson, referring to when Senate leaders expect work to be completed on the legislation. 

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