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The "Mitt Romney defense," as it's likely to become known, will endure on the American scene longer than his candidacy did.

As in, "I didn't hire them - it was the lawn service."

That's what he said, in not so few words, when the Boston Globe found illegal immigrants working (for the second time) at what Rudy Giuliani gleefully called Romney's "sanctuary mansion."

It was a lame excuse for a politician who had been stoking his ambition on immigration hysteria, but it also happened to be perfectly legal. The lawn service contractor hired the men, paid them and deducted their taxes. At no point did any law oblige Romney to inspect their papers.

That points to serious danger, it seems to me, for multitudes of perfectly legal American workers.

Think "leasing company."

Many employers contract with employee-leasing firms to save themselves the trouble of managing payrolls, deductions and benefits.Leasing is probably more cost-effective for small companies than for large ones.

But in the face of new and proposed laws to fine employers or even, as in Arizona, put them out of business for hiring illegal immigrants, it's reasonable to expect that leasing will become an attractive option for many more employers.

Health and life insurance, seniority and other workplace benefits would not necessarily survive the transition.

Unless the laws are carefully written,it would be easy for a rogue leasing company to close shop just ahead of the immigration enforcers and transfer its files to a new one controlled by the same people.

Established leasing companies with good reputations are not going to do this. But they're not going to want to bear the burden of immigration enforcement either. Trouble is, it won't be easy for Congress who decide who will.

Rep. Health Shuler, D-N.C., has 136 co-sponsors including seven from Florida for a bill, H.R. 4088, that would, within four years, require every employer to consult the government's existing voluntary E-verification system for all present and future hires. It calls for firing anyone whose name, birth dates or Social Security numbers don't match what the government has on file.

That would apply to any employer who hires even one worker, be he or she a gardener, nanny or maid. I don't see any household exception in Shuler's bill or any language to foreclose a leasing company loophole.

There is an enormous problem with the E-Verify system which the sponsors trust so much. The Government Accountability Office has warned Congress that some identity glitches can take weeks to resolve and that the system is susceptible to document fraud.

It is also "vulnerable to employer misuse ... such as employers limiting work assignments or pay while employees are undergoing the verification process," the agency said.

Sadly, H.R. 4088 is all about enforcement and nothing about replacing as many as 12-million people whom it proposes to purge from the work force.

It reminds me of the class in race relations I took from Lewis Killian at Florida State University some 40 years ago, at the height of the Southern outrage over school desegregation. He assigned a term paper: Describe how blacks and whites could be segregated totally.

My answer: It couldn't be done. Not even South Africa's apartheid was total. The whites needed black workers more than the whites cared to admit.

The same is true of illegal immigrants in the United States today.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times and author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, published by the University Press of Florida.