Senate committee looks to curb illegal immigrants’ impact on Missouri’s economy

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – With rising concerns about how employing illegal immigrants under the table impacts Missouri’s economy, an interim Senate committee is examining how to curb the effects. 

The goal of the committee is to clamp down on revenues the state is missing out on, and to identify means of discouraging employers from hiring undocumented workers. 

When illegal immigrants are hired under the table, both the employer and employee are able to evade taxes, as well as dodge visa requirements needed to legally hire or be hired. Under-the-table work is attractive to immigrants who don’t have proper documentation, but it also leaves the door wide open for exploitative employers to violate Missouri’s labor laws and pay well below the state’s minimum wage.

“It’s really damaging,” said state Sen. Mike Cierpiot, vice chairman of the Senate Interim Committee on Illegal Immigration. “A lot of these people are paid cash, which makes them less well off because they’re not being paid decent wages. It also really [impacts] the contractors who are trying to play by the rules.

“We encourage those to play by the rules and do the right things by their employees. But when we allow this other stuff to go on, it just seems to be counterproductive for everybody.

State Sen. Justin Brown, chairman of the Senate Interim Committee on Illegal Immigration, says he is focused on finding solutions to the issue, and believes accountability is at the heart of the solution.

“I’m a small business guy, and I’m all about protecting businesses, but somebody is going to have to answer for this problem or this is not going to be solved,” Brown said at a recent committee hearing. “I’m not just talking about the labor part of it, not to mention the drugs and human trafficking pieces that are equally as horrible.”

Matias Raigoza, owner of Rayoza Contracting, said he is paying thousands of dollars to use visa workers legally and it’s unfair that other employers get to cut corners with seemingly no retribution. 

“We were bidding on a job in St. Louis and the contractor who was awarded the contract was a million dollars under us,” Raigoza said at the hearing. “How can we compete with people like that?”

Because the majority of issues brought on by employing illegal immigrants relates to businesses, labor laws and the state’s economy, many believed the Missouri Department of Labor had at least some authority to help resolve the issue. 

However, Ben Terrell, a legislative liaison for the Department of Labor, said at the hearing the department has no such authority to get involved with businesses who hire illegal immigrants.

“If we get any kind of tip like that, we would refer it to the U.S. Department of Labor or Homeland Security,” Terrell said. “The Missouri Department of Labor does not have authority when it comes to illegal immigration.

“What we do investigate are work misclassifications. And that’s the question of, ‘Is this worker an employee or independent contractor?’ If we get a tip and investigate, and we find that someone has been misclassified and the employer is not paying the appropriate taxes, we will go after them and collect those taxes.”

To reduce the exploitation of workers and minimize monetary losses to the state, one solution debated among legislators is called E-Verify. The program is a federal web-based system used by other states that allows, and in some cases may require, employers to confirm employment eligibility of potential employees.

There are an estimated 60,000 undocumented immigrants in Missouri. According to an expert witness’s testimony at the committee hearing, in 2021 illegal immigration cost the Show-Me State $365 million. 

“The state is not getting any benefit,” Brown said. “The illegals are. The people who bring them here are. The companies who hire them are. But the state isn’t. The state is being cheated out of tax revenue, and nothing is being paid into unemployment or workers’ compensation.”

“It all starts with the federal government,” Cierpiot said. “What Biden is doing at the border is just awful. You can never increase wages if you have an endless supply of labor and that’s what we have right now: An endless supply of labor willing to work for below minimum wage.” 

Cierpiot said he’s confident the committee will be able to “come out of it with some ideas for legislation that can actually address the problem.” The committee’s next meeting is set for July 20, with more information regarding that meeting to be released soon.

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