Most of the estimated 500,000 protesters who marched downtown more than a week ago appeared to be Latino workers, youths, union types and church folks. I wasn't there so I can't say, but I hope there were some business owners there, too.


At least, there should have been.


Of course, most of the protesters were upset because of a bill that, if passed, basically would make felons of undocumented workers and anyone who helped them. But one aspect largely overlooked is that the bill also would make criminals of any business that employed them.


The bill would assess civil penalties of up to $20,000 against employers for each illegal immigrant they hired and it would tag them with criminal penalties of up to $20,000 and up to six months in jail for hiring the undocumented.


Think about that. Imagine you own a little family landscaping company or car wash in L.A. You do good work for an affordable price and you eke out a living. You do a lot of the work yourself, but you can't do everything so you hire some workers. Of course, when you advertise your job openings hard manual labor for low wages you don't exactly get a long line of blonde applicants.


But you do get some Hispanic applicants. Granted, they may not speak much English and you may have qualms about their status, but their Social Security cards look authentic. What's more, they're eager and they work diligently.


But imagine you get busted for employing illegal immigrants. It turns out that the Social Security cards weren't authentic. If you have five workers, you're looking at fines of up to $200,000, not to mention legal fees, and up to 6 months in jail. And just to mess with your future, you'd have a criminal record.


Actually, that scenario isn't far from the truth. It's mostly small family businesses that hire and depend on immigrant workers.


And it's not an isolated thing. Although no one really knows the numbers, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are 2.5 million illegals in California. Other sources believe about half that number perhaps 1 to 1.5 million are in the Los Angeles area.


That means tens of thousands of L.A. area business operators, mostly small business owners, have illegals on their payroll right now. Each of those business owners would be exposed to heavy fines, jail time and a criminal record under the bill.


Of course, by making criminals of business operators who hire undocumented workers, the bill really was trying to force small-business owners to be the de facto immigration police. The irony is that the federal government is a spectacular failure at doing just that. Everyone knows that long stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border are unguarded, but Congress has never seen fit to do much about it. You've got a much greater chance of being busted for smoking in Calabasas than you do of being caught illegally crossing the border.


Luckily, the draconian parts of that bill appear headed for the rewrite desk. But if they come back, it would be gratifying to see some business owners protest next time.


*Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@ labusinessjournal.com .

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