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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms February 27, 2012

Criminal penalty proposals introduced, but none became law

Gearing up for his 2010 primary battle with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry called on his campaign website for "imposing criminal penalties on employers who knowingly violate employment laws by hiring workers who are in Texas illegally.”

After besting Hutchison in the March 2010 Republican primary and Democrat Bill White in the fall, Perry reiterated his proposal at the start of the 2011 legislative session in his State of the State address. "It is also time to seriously address the demand side of illegal immigration,” Perry said, according to text of his remarks. "We must establish criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hire workers who are here in violation of immigration law.”

Texas lawmakers proposed at least two measures to do so during the 2011 session, but none became law. Federal law has barred employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants since 1986, though some state legislatures have cited concerns about continued illegal entries to develop state-level immigration provisions.

In a Sept. 12, 2011, Texas Tribune news article about Perry"s record on immigration, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger says he supported efforts during the session to punish businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. The story notes that those efforts were "ultimately” unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best-known proposal was House Bill 1202 by Republican state Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball. It would have amended the state"s penal code, making it a state jail felony to "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” employ an illegal immigrant. A state jail felony is punishable with a jail term of 180 days to two years and a fine of up to $10,000.

The proposal drew attention for its exception: If an employer had hired an illegal immigrant "for the purpose of obtaining labor or other work to be performed exclusively or primarily at a single-family residence” — for example, working as a housekeeper — he or she would not be in violation of the law.

Riddle"s bill never advanced from the House State Affairs Committee. Neither did House Bill 2878 by state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, which would have made "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” hiring an illegal immigrant a third-degree felony. Violators would have faced a prison term of two to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Other unsuccessful proposals were introduced during the session that would have punished those who hired illegal immigrants by revoking state licenses that businesses need to operate, rather than imposing a fine or requiring jail time.

In an Oct. 23, 2011, commentary for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, reporter Peggy Fikac noted that after Perry"s most recent re-election campaign and the 2011 State of the State speech, his declared interest in the proposal appeared to diminish.

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told Fikac that his office worked to advance Riddle"s bill. But, Fikac noted, Perry did not designate the issue an emergency in the 2011 regular legislative session, nor did he add it to the agenda of the special session he called in June 2011.

Fikac quoted Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, as saying that to his recollection, Perry did not push his proposal, which Hammond opposed. Hammond said that there is no reliable way for employers to check the immigration status of workers and that immigration is a federal issue.

Congress established federal civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring people who are not authorized to work in the United States in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, best known for giving amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal residents.

According to a fact sheet on the website of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security, the civil fines for violating the law range from about $400 to more than $14,000 per illegal immigrant employed, depending on the number of violations and the number of employees a business has. The criminal penalty for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants is a prison term of up to six months and a fine of $3,000 for each unauthorized worker employed.

In recent years, the failure of Congress to reform immigration laws has helped touch off heated debate and changes in law in some states. In 2007, Arizona"s legislature approved a measure holding that employers who knowingly or intentionally hire illegal immigrants can have their business licenses suspended or revoked. It does not impose criminal penalties.

That law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said in a May 26, 2011, ruling that although the 1986 federal immigration act prohibits states from punishing employers for hiring illegal immigrants, the Arizona law falls within an exception Congress laid out permitting states to impose sanctions "through licensing” laws.

A New York Times news article about the ruling said the Supreme Court"s decision "amounted to a green light for vigorous state efforts to combat the employment of illegal workers.” And it said that Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia had recently enacted laws similar to Arizona"s.

Summing up the Texas situation: Legislators in 2011 introduced proposals that would have imposed criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. But none became law. We rate this Perry promise Broken.

UPDATE, Feb. 21, 2012: The original headline on this Perry promise has been changed to clarify that he promised to create the criminal penalties.

Our Sources

Gov. Rick Perry, text, "Gov. Perry: We Must Reform, Streamline State Government,” 2011 State of the State address, Feb. 8, 2011

National Conference of State Legislatures, chart, 2011 enacted immigration laws by state, Dec. 7, 2011

Texas Tribune, news article, "Perry seeks blessing from an immigration hardliner,” Sept. 12, 2011

Texas Legislature Online, House Bill 1202, 82nd Legislature

Texas Tribune, news article, "Bill: Hire an illegal, go to jail — but maids are OK,” Feb. 24, 2011

Interview with Scott Riling, chief of staff to Texas Rep. Debbie Riddle, Feb. 21, 2012

Texas Legislature Online, House Bill 2878, 82nd Legislature

Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News, commentary, "Column: Attacking Romney on immigration is risky for Perry,” Oct. 23, 2011

Migration Policy Institute, report, "Lessons from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986,” August 2005

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, fact sheet, "Form I-9 Inspection Overview,” Dec. 1, 2009

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Sec. 274A (8 U.S.C. 1324a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act: "Unlawful employment of aliens” (accessed Feb. 21, 2012)

Arizona attorney general"s office, webpage, "Frequently asked questions about the Legal Arizona Workers Act” (accessed Feb. 21, 2012)

New York Times, Supreme Court opinion: Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, May 26, 2011

New York Times, news article, "Court upholds faulting hirers,” May 26, 2011

Interview with Ann Morse, director, Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, Feb. 21, 2012

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