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Unions, immigrant foes join to push foreigners off PA jobs

A bill with wide support in Harrisburg would punish construction firms that employ "undocumented" workers

Building-trades union supporters in the state legislature have revived an old alliance with anti-immigrant conservatives to back proposed laws that would punish construction companies for hiring foreigners using phony Social Security numbers to work on Pennsylvania building sites.

State Rep. John Galloway, D-Morrisville, has signed up 53 lawmakers from both parties - more than a quarter of the State House - to co-sponsor a bill that would suspend the business licenses of construction employers that failed to ensure workers had valid Social Security numbers, using the federal government's Social Security and Homeland Security databases through the e-Verify program. He expects a vote this month.

Galloway says he wants to punish contractors who "use and abuse a cheap workforce for profit," hurting U.S. citizen workers who are left struggling "to put food on the table because their jobs were stolen by a contractor who exploits illegal workers." 

Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, raised very different images in joining Galloway at a Harrisburg news conference to support the bills. Instead of labor rights, Metcalfe spoke of the "illegal alien problem" and linked "invading" foreigners to "potential terrorist attacks", rape, murder, and street crime. He praised Arizona's controversial expansion of police powers to expel foreign workers, and said he'd met with immigration opponent former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., to plot state legislative strategy.

But Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, insisted the bill (and a companion requiring Social Security checks by state contractors) were "not anti-immigrant bills," adding, "My grandparents were immigrants.... The problem is people breaking the rules." He chastised the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, social service groups, and others who profit from illegal immigrants for opposing the measures.

Sam Denisco, the state chamber's head of govenrment affairs, says his business lobby opposes the bills on narrow legal grounds: The Obama administration has aske the Supreme Court to void similar rules in Arizona, and Denisco says the Supremes typically uphold the administration in power on state-federal disputes; so it's ineffective for Pennsylvania to try to legislate before the question is settled.

Densico also noted that construction employer groups oppose the bill, along with the Service Employees International Union, whose members include immigrant janitors.

Making it tougher to hire foreign workers will drive up U.S. wages. Even with an estimated 1 in 6 Americans out of a job, employers continue to complain of a shortage of reliable low-wage labor. A bill that makes it harder to hire foreigners can be expected to drive wages up, which is good for workers, but will add to costs for small business and other low-wage employers, and for consumers.

I asked Metcalfe's office if he had estimated the cost of the bills for Pennsylvania firms and consumers and the benefit to low-wage workers, and his office directed me back to Galloway, the prime sponsor. His aide, Lauren Rooney, promised a response, then begged off: "Sorry, I don't have that information." Nor would she explain why Galloway is going after foreign construction workers, and not farm, factory or office workers.