Washington — Two construction trade groups are reacting to stiffer penalties against employers who violate federal immigration laws recently announced by the U.S. Department of Justice.

U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the higher civil fines, which increased by as much as $5,000, would take effect on March 27.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, employers who violate employment eligibility requirements are subject to civil monetary penalties.

The new rule and applicable law adjusted the civil penalties for inflation, which has not taken place since 1999, according to the Department of Justice. The average adjustment is approximately 25%. Under the specific rounding mechanism of the law, the minimum penalty for knowingly employing an unauthorized alien increased from $275 to $375.

The maximum penalty for a first violation also increased from $2,200 to $3,200. The largest increase raised the maximum civil penalty for multiple violations from the current $11,000 to $16,000. The federal government assesses the penalties on a per-alien basis. Therefore, an employer who knowingly employed, or continued to employ, five unauthorized aliens could receive five fines, according to the DOJ.

Ike Casey, executive vice president of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association, said the recent tough stance on immigration is the result of election-year politics.

“Right now, because of the elections, everybody is trying to posture themselves to be strong on immigration,” he said.

However, Casey said he does not foresee any further action on illegal immigration until after the general election in November.

“We don't expect anything to happen in the near future until after the election except for a lot of politicking,” he said.

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America hailed the new fines while railing against employers who continue to violate federal immigration laws.

“MCAA supports higher penalties for illegal employment practices, but would venture that for many of the larger industry employers that are so invested in the underground workforce, such fines are a mere overhead cost of doing business,” said John McNerney, the association's general counsel.

Employers receive fines under the Immigration and Nationality Act for knowingly employing unauthorized aliens. Other violations include failure to comply with the requirements relating to employment eligibility verification forms, wrongful discrimination against job applicants or employees on the basis of nationality or citizenship and immigration-related document fraud. For each of these violations, an employer has the right to a hearing before an administrative law judge in the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

McNerney said MCAA employers have long-supported stringent workforce standards and the enforcement of high labor standards throughout the economy.

“MCAA and the CQC (Campaign for Quality Construction) Alliance continually press for broadening prevailing wage protections for the domestic workforce overall, enactment of more stringent legislative and regulatory reforms to stem rampant employment misclassification abuses in the construction workforce and implementation of even tighter contractor responsibility standards for construction firms competing in public and private markets nationwide,” he said.

Casey, meanwhile, said certain federal measures continue to alarm PHCC-NA, particularly “e-verify and no-match letters,” which the Social Security Administration issues to employers when an employee's name and Social Security number do not match SSA records.

“(No-match letters) can cause a lot of problems for employers,” he said. “Employers have got to react to them. If they don't react to them, then they're going to be in trouble with the Social Security Administration or with the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).”

The higher civil fines follow a series of reforms in August 2007 meant to secure the nation's borders, improve interior and worksite enforcement and improve the current immigration system. Additional measures have included the expanded prosecution and removal of criminal aliens and a streamlining of existing guest worker programs.

McNerney said MCAA and the CQC Alliance welcomed the application of prevailing wage standards on existing guest worker programs last year, but open shops instead argued for “watered down wage standards in the more lax Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Survey.”

“Importing illegal immigrants to undermine domestic workforce standards, while at the same time exporting high-value production jobs, has been a rock-solid, lose-lose proposition for the American economy and the domestic workforce for over two decades now,” he said.