Last big issue is migrant hiring
The Arizona Republic
May. 7, 2005 12:00 AM
Legislators consider employer crackdown

Elvia Díaz
Arizona lawmakers formally approved their $8.2 billion budget early Friday, clearing the way for what may be the last big battle of this year's session: illegal immigration.

The House and Senate will consider measures early next week that include tougher sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers, a ballot measure declaring English the state's official language and a bill that would ban government-sponsored day labor centers.

Other measures to be resolved include:

• The question of how much money should be set aside for court-ordered improvements in education for public school students struggling to learn English.

• A bill that would authorize police officers to investigate, arrest, detain or deport undocumented immigrants. Currently, only federal agents have the authority to do so.

• A bill that would increase the number of benefits denied to undocumented immigrants beyond those specified by Proposition 200, an anti-illegal immigration initiative approved by voters in November.

The session is expected to end as early as Wednesday.

Legislators approved the fiscal 2005-06 budget about 3 a.m. Friday. It is expected to be signed early next week by Gov. Janet Napolitano.


6-month suspension


One of the biggest fights ahead involves a series of provisions approved tentatively by the Senate this week calling, among other things, for a six-month business license suspension of any Arizona employer found guilty of hiring undocumented workers.

"We're being hypocrites by targeting immigrants and not those who hire them," said Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix.

He added the employer penalties to House Bills 2030 and 2592, which deny certain public benefits to undocumented immigrants and ban state and local governments from spending money on shelters for day laborers seeking jobs.

"Obviously somebody is hiring them," Brotherton added.

Brotherton and other legislators say border-crossers come to Arizona because employers hire them for everything from preparing food at restaurants to construction, landscaping, roofing and housekeeping.

The renewed focus on employers has put mainstream and small Arizona businesses in a quandary. They ferociously oppose proposed penalties, but they are reluctant to defend the practice of hiring undocumented workers publicly.

Under the legislation, the firms could be banned from seeking state government contracts. They could also face state audits and pay hefty fines toward health care programs for the poor.

Some critics question the need for state regulations when federal law deals with the hiring of undocumented workers.

"Arizona shouldn't be piggybacking onto federal violations," said Farrell Quinlan, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the state fines. "The federal government is more than willing and able to assess its own penalties."

Quinlan characterized the proposed provisions as "the death penalty" for some businesses. But he wouldn't cite the type of industries that could be hurt the most. The businesses, he said, often face a huge dilemma because there is no reliable way to verify with certainty the legal status of employees.

Federal law forbids employers from hiring anyone but U.S. citizens or those who can work in the country legally. That provision was key to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that gave amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

But the effectiveness of the law has been questioned because of a lack of enforcement. Among the documents acceptable to prove legal status are green cards, or permanent-residency cards; a driver's license; Social Security card; birth certificate; or certificate of naturalization.

But it is widely believed that Arizona employers routinely ignore the federal law or unknowingly hire undocumented immigrants.


Widespread hiring


No one knows exactly how many undocumented immigrants are living and working in Arizona. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the state has gained 200,000 undocumented immigrants in the past five years, pushing the number to about 500,000. That means, according to the center, that Arizona has the fifth-largest population of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States.

Immigrant advocates and some Democratic lawmakers characterize the migrant laborers as essential to Arizona's economy because they normally take jobs U.S. citizens would not.

Carlos Duarte, a union organizer for immigrant roofers, said that the hiring of undocumented immigrants is so widespread that certain industries would shut down if the federal law and the proposed state fines were implemented.

"The roofing industry, in particular, and the construction industry, in general, would immediately be paralyzed," Duarte said.

Salvador Reza, who runs Phoenix's Macehualli Work Center in northeast Phoenix, echoed the sentiment.

"They (the provisions) could potentially destroy the state's economy," Reza said. "Everyone knows the state depends on migrant labor."

Duarte, Reza and others believe the proposed state sanctions are unworkable.

For one thing, Arizona would still rely on the federal government to investigate and prosecute employers before imposing the added penalties.

And the problem, they say, is that employers can always claim they do not hire undocumented immigrants because of loopholes in the federal law.


Relying on immigrants


No employer would openly admit hiring undocumented immigrants, but some say privately that they routinely pick up day laborers waiting at Valley streets for a day's work. Others say they rely on immigrants to prepare food, for housekeeping, construction and other jobs.

Some small-business owners who occasionally hire immigrants say they don't ask for proof of legal status.

Others say that they follow the immigration law diligently and that there is no way of knowing if the papers presented to them are authentic.

Some Republican senators agree it would be impossible for the state to carry out the proposed mandates.

"How can we hold an employer responsible for hiring an illegal alien if the person presents what appears to be proper documentation?" asked Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park. "It's already against federal law to hire illegal aliens."

Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, favors going after employers, though he would rather see different mechanisms such as giving them warnings before yanking their business licenses.

"The first time is a warning or a slap on the hand," said Nichols, describing the type of sanctions he would be willing to support.

"The second time you impose a heavy fine. If you catch them a third time, then yes, take the business license away."

But Nichols and other legislators across party lines believe the federal law is too lax, prompting employers to hire undocumented immigrants rampantly.

"We know everyone is turning a blind eye to the problem," Nichols said.

During the past eight years, immigration authorities have fined roughly 15 Arizona businesses for hiring undocumented immigrants.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8948.