Arizona's Immigration Two-Step

A fence along the Arizona's border with Mexico.
A fence along the Arizona's border with Mexico. (By Guillermo Arias -- Associated Press)
By Lee Hockstader
Monday, April 21, 2008

PHOENIX -- Traumatized by a tidal wave of illegal immigrants, Arizona last year enacted the nation's most pitiless law to punish employers who hire undocumented workers. Now state lawmakers, having proved that they mean business -- even if it means killing off businesses -- are reconnecting with reality: They want to import Mexican workers.

No state has been as unhinged by illegal immigration as Arizona, where by some estimates undocumented employees comprise up to 12 percent of the state's workforce of 3 million, more than twice the national average. They have also fueled Arizona's supercharged economy, which has grown faster -- and with less unemployment -- than almost anywhere else in the country.

Recently I visited the north Phoenix neighborhood of Palomino, which was virtually all white and Anglo 25 years ago. Today it is overwhelmingly Latino, teeming with taco joints and home to the city's only day-labor center.

"You drive around, you can't even read the store signs or the billboards," said James Cooney, a recently laid-off heavy equipment operator whom I found picketing outside the day-labor center with a group of like-minded protesters, some of them overtly racist. "It's an invasion."

That sentiment, plus Congress's failure to fix the nation's broken-down immigration system, contributed to a sort of legislative temper tantrum in Phoenix last summer. With little opposition, state lawmakers passed a bill to penalize firms that knowingly hire undocumented workers by suspending their business licenses for up to 10 days; on a second offense, the license is revoked.

The resulting outcry from companies warning of severe labor shortages prompted lawmakers to water down the bill somewhat, by, for instance, applying it only to workers hired after Jan. 1 of this year. But they kept some provisions businesses hated, including one allowing prosecutors to act on anonymous tips about undocumented workers.

The law had the desired effect. Immigrant neighborhoods in Phoenix started emptying out. Some employers called in suspect workers and fired those who admitted lacking proper documents. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has cultivated an image as a Bull Connor for the nativist crowd, took the law as a green light to round up and harass Hispanics.

Just as satisfying to many of the law's advocates, Arizona companies rushed to register for E-Verify, the federal government's Internet-based system for checking the employment eligibility of newly hired workers. Now some 25,000 are signed up, more than in every other state combined. Lawmakers in Colorado, Georgia and elsewhere began drafting legislation modeled on the Arizona law.

But despite a jobless rate that is creeping higher, it has dawned on lawmakers that an enforcement-only strategy may inflict a lethal blow to state employers in agriculture, hospitality, construction and other industries, all of which have depended on a steady supply of low-skilled immigrant workers. And while the economic slowdown has somewhat eased the demand for workers, especially in construction, chances are slim that Arizona's economy will come roaring back without an adequate labor supply.

So now, with far less fanfare, the legislature is pushing through a measure calling for an Arizona-specific temporary guest-worker pilot program. The bill, which has bipartisan backing, would relieve labor shortages in certain industries by allowing qualifying companies to recruit workers in Mexico for a two-year term of employment. That would need congressional or federal approval, which, given recent history, may be problematic, to say the least.

In other words, having done its utmost to have undocumented Hispanics fired and driven from the state, Arizona has now decided it badly needs low-skilled labor after all. In both instances -- by getting tough with employers and by providing for a future supply of legal guest workers -- the state is trying to achieve what Congress could not.

That's the dilemma of the maddening national debate over immigration, which is torn between seemingly irreconcilable political forces: an anti-immigration camp that will brook no talk of amnesty to allow existing employees to stay; and employers whose growth, profits and, in some cases, existence depend on a reliable supply of cheap, low-skilled workers of the sort that have become scarce among native-born Americans.

While in Arizona, I spent time with state Rep. Russell K. Pearce, chief sponsor of the employer-sanctions bill. For him, the impulse to turn back the tide of illegal immigrants and return to a simpler era is visceral. "My son married a Hispanic woman . . . my neighbors are the Martinezes, and we get along well," said Pearce, whose office at the Capitol features portraits of John Wayne. "But we're an English-speaking nation, and we should hold on to our culture."

I also talked to Jason LeVecke, president of a company that owns 68 fast-food restaurants and convenience stores around Arizona, whose fury at the employer-sanctions law led him to suspend new projects in the state. "Arizona at the end of the day is a desert," he said. "If we become a more risky or a more costly place of doing business than the other 49 states, which today we are, we will become a declining economy in perpetuity."

Until Congress resolves that debate, there will be plenty more such voices shouting at each other in the desert.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address

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