Little Oversight of Contractors Hiring Illegal Immigrants
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
It's a law designed to make sure the state of Tennessee only does business with contractors who hire legal workers.
Back in 2006, Governor Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee Legislature jumped into the emotional debate over illegal immigration.
Governor Bredesen signed Executive Order 41, and the legislature passed Public Chapter 878. They prohibit the state from doing business with contractors who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
But four years later, the state has not found one contractor who hired illegal immigrants. Critics say it's because the state is not looking.
Despite setting aside money for the program, the enforcement consists of making contractors to sign a promise they are using legal workers and a basic audit of 50 contracts each year to make sure their paperwork is in order.
"It hasn't amounted to a hill of beans. It's all good on paper. It looks good," contractor Grady Givens said.
Givens owns a mowing and litter removal company in Fairview, Tennessee.
He said if the state really looked, they would find contractors using undocumented workers.
He believes other contractors hire undocumented workers and pay them less than the $11.27 an hour required for state mowing contracts.
"We still bid the work. We just cannot compete with the prices the other contractors are doing it at," Givens said.
Givens' company recently received nearly a million dollars in state contracts, but last year it was down to around $300,000. That means he's had to lay off local workers
"If I don't have the work, I have to let them go," Givens said.
He believes Tennesseans are getting cut out of jobs because the state is not reviewing its contracts more closely, and democratic State Senator Doug Jackson agrees.
"The goal of the legislation was to provide integrity to the process to make sure that Tennesseans were hired with Tennessee tax dollars not illegal immigrants," Senator Jackson said.
The state entered into more than 4000 contracts last year, but only 50 are audited to make sure contractors have signed their promise that their workers are legal. The enforcement does not include a visit to any worksite.
"What a ridiculous situation," Senator Jackson said. "The state of Tennessee has never looked since 2006. They've not gone to a single job site to investigate. The process is void."
But state officials said the law was never intended to lead to worksite checks.
"The state cannot enforce immigration law," said Finance and Administration spokesperson Lola Potter.
She said the law and Executive Order simply allow the state to end a contract if it's found a contractor knowingly used illegal workers.
"It's a process that does remind them and does make them at least keep on file their information to make sure they are not employing illegal aliens," Potter said
But Senator Jackson said the Department of Finance and Administration receives $87,000 a year to administer the checks. He said the state is not getting its money's worth.
"Does it cost $87,000 a year to pull 50 contracts and look to make sure the signatures are there?" Jackson asked.
Grady Givens said many contractors are reluctant to speak out about the problem, but he said in this economy he felt the need to stand-up for local jobs.
Senator Jackson said he doesn't want the state to enforce immigration. He just wants the state to manage its contracts. He is planning legislation for the next session that would lead to more oversight of Tennessee's contracts.
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