By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina lawmakers on Saturday passed a bill requiring businesses with 25 or more employees to check the citizenship status of job applicants on a federal database called E-Verify.
After a 24-month phase-in period, the legislation will require about 40 percent of the state's businesses to verify the immigration status of potential hires.
E-Verify compares information from an applicant to Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration data to confirm employment eligibility.
The measure passed the House in a 67-45 vote after undergoing changes in the Senate.
The final bill disappointed its chief sponsor, Republican Representative George Cleveland of Jacksonville. He wanted the requirement applied to all businesses regardless of size.
The bill now headed to Governor Beverly Perdue's desk also provides an exemption for agriculture companies that employ people such as crop pickers for 90 days or less.
Cleveland said the measure won't cover many undocumented immigrants working in the state.
"The people that we really should be looking at are not covered at all because most illegal aliens in the state are not being hired by big corporations," Cleveland told Reuters.
He said he proposed the bill to help citizens looking for jobs in North Carolina, where unemployment is higher than the national average.
"We have some 280,000 illegal aliens in this state and we've got 9.7 percent unemployment," he said. "Of course I'm looking for jobs for the people of this state."
State Representative Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury who co-sponsored the bill, said, "The version that got passed is not exactly what we hoped to have, but it's a step in the right direction that puts us in league with similar measures in 13 other states."
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, an immigration enforcement advocacy group, welcomed the bill. But he said he was disappointed some Republicans tried to "completely gut the bill to protect the jobs of illegal aliens and those that hire them."
Several states have enacted immigration restrictions, even though the U.S. government considers it to be a federal issue.
Last week, Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill that would require most of the country's employers to electronically verify the immigration status of potential employees.
(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)