Anne Arundel County officials said they will sever ties with government contractors that employ illegal immigrants, wading into controversial territory that has prompted lawsuits in other jurisdictions across the country.
County Executive John R. Leopold issued an executive order this week that will require businesses to sign an affidavit swearing they do not employ people living in the country illegally. Evidence that a company has hired illegal immigrants would constitute a "material breach of contract," allowing the county to drop the contractor from the job.
Leopold said the federal government "hypocritically" tolerates such practices, but Anne Arundel will not. "Any company that is complying with federal law and not hiring illegal immigrants will have nothing to be concerned about," said Leopold, a Republican.
The Anne Arundel directive is apparently the first in the state, and one of the first in the country to emerge since a federal court threw out a local ordinance adopted in Hazleton, Pa., which sought, among other things, to deny city contracts and business permits to companies that employed illegal immigrants. The court ruled that the town's action usurped federal immigration policy.
Numerous cities and states have been monitoring contractors as a way of getting around a 1986 federal immigration law that forbids local jurisdictions from punishing businesses directly.
In March, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt canceled a state contract with a janitorial company found to be employing illegal immigrants and directed state agencies to audit all contractors to ensure their employees were legally eligible to work. State contractors are also required to confirm their workers are legal in Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where immigrant advocate groups have sued to block the law.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, said Leopold's policy had the potential to further discrimination of Hispanics and could hurt businesses that use immigrant labor.
"Trying to resolve a federal issue with an executive order, from my viewpoint, is something that's not productve for the county," Torres said. "The reality is that the immigration system is broken, and the economy is demanding an immigrant work force."
He said it is the first such order he knows of in Maryland, and "hopefully the last."
The move is Leopold's latest since taking office last fall that is aimed at illegal immigrants and the businesses or groups that assist them. Earlier this year, Leopold denied $115,000 in grants to Centro de Ayuda - a nonprofit group that offers language, legal, health and job-placement services to Latinos - after an effort to distinguish services aimed at legal immigrants from those that assist illegal immigrants proved difficult.
It was not clear how Anne Arundel County would enforce the latest order. Leopold said the county will not ask contractors to verify their employees' status and will only act if the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement brings a violation to its attention. County contracts already forbid businesses to break federal laws.
"We hope that individuals, by signing an affidavit on a purchasing agreement, recognize the seriousness of the matter," Leopold said. "We don't want to utilize county resources for this effort. We won't be intrusive."
But the county won't check up on businesses. Since the order relies on the very agencies Leopold said aren't adequately enforcing immigration, some questioned whether it will have a meaningful effect. County Councilman Daryl D. Jones, a Democrat from Severn, said it "does what already exists. It doesn't carve out anything new."
The order and subsequent announcement offended business owners by implying that they are not following the law, said Bob Burdon, president of the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce.
"It really puts businesses in an improper and inappropriate light, when all of them work to comply with the federal mandate," Burdon said. "We're still trying to figure out why he felt it necessary to do this when it's been a policy all along."
Leopold's order resembles a law passed last fall in Suffolk County in suburban New York. There, government contractors are required to verify that their employers are in the United States legally and could be forced to forfeit their contracts if they are deemed repeat offenders. The law also carries fines and the potential for jail sentences.
"Legitimate contractors felt that they were being placed at a competitive disadvantage by those companies that were cheating," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat who is co-founder of a national coalition called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform. "The government was aiding and abetting these cheaters by looking the other way."
Immigrant advocates warn that such laws often lack accountability measures that prevent discrimination against documented workers.
"Many of these ordinances ... are a reiteration of federal policy, so the problem becomes not necessarily writing the law but implementing it in a way that will not discriminate against other immigrant workers," said Flavia Jimenez, a senior policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.
Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer said the county was not attempting to make new laws but to make compliance with federal laws a condition of contracts with vendors. He said it was "theoretically possible" that the county could become aware of violations in ways other than notification from federal authorities, though the likelihood of such cases was remote.
Levy, the Suffolk County executive, said county consumer affairs and labor officials go to the work sites there and ask to see personnel files, which they cross-reference with the names of those working. "The enforcement has to be done locally, or it's just spinning its wheels," Levy said.
Rodger Gookin, a project manager at the Baltimore-based Iacoboni Site Specialists Inc. and president of the Utility Contractors Association of Anne Arundel County, praised the executive order and said companies should become more diligent in monitoring whom they hire as a result.
"We support the executive's position that all contractors play by the same rules," Gookin said. "As a contractor, we see that some of our [subcontractors] do hire quite a few foreign nationals, and we have not questioned them about the extent that they document the legality of their workers. This may force us to do that."