A city that has taken numerous steps to crack down on illegal immigration is now joining a string of Southern California municipalities that are signing up to tap a federal database aimed at tighter scrutiny of employees' immigration status.
Escondido's measure is modest compared to how others have embraced the free E-Verify tool, an online federal database now used voluntarily by employers nationwide. The north San Diego suburb's City Council voted 4-1 Wednesday to require all city contractors to use the screening for new hires and earlier this month began doing the same for all new city employees earlier this month.
The city will urge _ but not require _ private businesses to perform enhanced checks on new hires. Lancaster, north of Los Angeles, became the first city in Southern California to require private businesses to use E-Verify in January 2010 and was followed by others including Murrieta, Temecula and Lake Elsinore in the economically battered Inland Empire.
"We don't really want to be a heavy-handed government," said Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, a Lebanese immigrant and former IBM Corp. employee who has made illegal immigration a signature issue. "It's in their self-interest. We hope businesses will realize the benefit."
The proposal has sparked a familiar, if relatively muted, debate in Escondido, a city of 140,000 people that is about 50 percent Latino. Supporters say tougher immigration enforcement is overdue, while critics worry about fueling anti-immigrant sentiment.
In 2006, the City Council voted to require landlords to verify tenants' immigration status. The city dropped the measure before it took effect when a federal judge questioned whether it would survive legal scrutiny.
That same year, police introduced drivers' license checkpoints that resulted in seizures of hundreds of cars a year. Illegal immigrants cannot get drivers' licenses in California, so many lose their cars.
And last year, the city formed an unusually close alliance with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has two agents stationed at police headquarters to respond when people who are pulled over a traffic citation or questioned for other violations are found to have deportation orders or criminal records.
Police say they have turned over more than 400 illegal immigrants to ICE since the alliance, called Operation Joint Effort, began in May.
E-Verify allows employers to run a worker's information against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases to check whether the person is permitted to work in the U.S. The Obama administration has made cracking down on employers who hire people here illegally a central part of its immigration enforcement policy.
Much of the criticism of E-Verify has focused on whether U.S. citizens and legal immigrants with permission to work were falsely flagged as illegal workers. Immigration officials have been taking steps to improve such inaccuracies.
Al's Towing, which has a contract to tow vehicles for the police department, signed up E-Verify when owner Josh Park learned the city might make it mandatory. Previously, he examined a job applicant's documents and gave his blessings as long as they looked legitimate to his naked eye. Now, he says, he has an extra safeguard to ensure his employees are legally entitled to work.
"We were required by law to verify to a certain extent, this just allows you to check it," said Park, one of more than 250,000 employers nationwide _ including about 100 in Escondido _ who have enrolled in E-Verify. "Before, there was no tool to use."
Juan Gonzalez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who makes about $75 a day as a laborer, says the new measure will have limited impact because it is limited to city contractors and doesn't apply to those who hire him.
"There is work, but it's on the farms, landscaping, tearing off roofs _ the kind of work that many people won't do for $10 an hour," he said.