updated 9/20/2006 9:37:17 AM ET 2006-09-20T13:37:17

Business owners could soon face fines and even jail time if they hire illegal immigrants in this Long Island community, the latest in one of many efforts by local governments across the country to crack down on undocumented workers.

The bill was passed 15-3 by the Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday and was expected to be signed into law by the county executive, despite critics who call it anti-immigrant.

The legislation applies to the roughly 6,000 companies and agencies that have county contracts. The penalties include fines and potential jail time. Repeat offenders could forfeit their contracts.

Suffolk County, on the eastern half of Long Island, has drawn day laborers from Mexico and Central America over the past decade. There are about 1.5 million people living in the county.

Recent national scrutiny of immigration policy has led to similar proposals around the nation. Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, the city of Hazleton passed legislation that would punish businesses that employ illegal immigrants and landlords who rent to them. The city council in Altoona, near Pittsburgh, is expected to vote on a comparable measure later this month.

In San Bernardino, Calif., an attempt to present a similar measure to voters was dismissed by the courts in June. And in Florida this summer, ordinances were voted down by city councils in Avon Park and Palm Bay.

The local efforts followed an attempt in Congress to criminalize illegal immigration. That legislation is effectively dead this year.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy was the leading proponent of the bill and called it a vital tool in helping crack down on unlawful immigration.

“The thing that feeds illegal immigration is the hiring,” Levy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “If you dry up the jobs, you dry up the flow of illegal immigration.”

But the Rev. Allen Ramirez, a longtime advocate for day laborers on Long Island, cited past attacks on the workers and the firebombing of a Farmingville house inhabited by Mexican immigrants.

“No one has shown that any companies doing business with Suffolk County hire undocumented people. They are glossing over the fact there is no need for this law,” he said.

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