TOPICS > Politics

Arizona’s Illegal Immigration Laws Put to the Test

June 11, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Last year, Arizona passed 15 bills and resolutions giving police more tools to go after illegal immigrants, one of several states tightening immigration laws. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles examines the impact of the new regulations.

GWEN IFILL: Next, combating illegal immigration. In Arizona yesterday, sheriff’s deputies arrested nine workers at water parks. Authorities said they were investigating allegations that the parks had knowingly employed undocumented immigrants.

No employers were detained, but records were seized that could lead to charges. A new state law in Arizona makes such hiring a crime.

NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports from the Grand Canyon State.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: Flashing police lights, interrogations, handcuffs and deportations are all part of a growing crackdown on suspected illegal immigrants in Arizona.

While immigration is generally a federal issue, in recent years, states and cities critical of Washington have enacted hundreds of their own immigration laws. Last year, Arizona alone passed 15 bills and resolutions giving police more tools to go after illegal immigrants.

The sheriff of Maricopa County, which takes in Phoenix, has special units that target illegal immigrants.

ARIZONA RESIDENT: You’re the best thing that ever happened to this town.

Tough stance praised by some

JEFFREY KAYE: Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other champions of the get-tough policies have become heroes among their supporters.

RALLY HOST: Ladies and gentlemen, the godfather of immigration in the state of Arizona, Representative Russell Pearce!

JEFFREY KAYE: Republican Russell Pearce has authored a slew of bills aimed at turning back what he sees as an invasion.

RUSSELL PEARCE (R), Arizona State Representative: I mean, look at the damage. They march in the streets. They protest. You've got communities turning into third-world countries. You've got the crime.

JEFFREY KAYE: One in 10 Arizona workers is believed to be an illegal immigrant, double the national share, so Pearce decided to aim for the magnet: jobs.

RUSSELL PEARCE: Just like Disneyland or any other theme park learned a long time ago, if you want the crowd to go home, you've got to shut down the rides, turn off the lights.

JEFFREY KAYE: Last year, Pearce wrote a controversial law that penalizes employers who hire illegal immigrants.

RUSSELL PEARCE: We passed a good bill, in fact, considered the toughest bill in the nation.

JEFFREY KAYE: Arizona is one of five states to have adopted so-called employer sanctions. The penalties are stiff. The first offense is a 10-day license suspension.

RUSSELL PEARCE: Second offense, revocation. Go find another state to do business in, because it won't be Arizona.

JEFFREY KAYE: Employers are required to use E-Verify, a federal database to confirm the immigration status of new hires.

Mexicans leaving Arizona in droves

JEFFREY KAYE: The new law has prompted many Mexican-born workers and their families to leave Arizona. The economic downturn, particularly in construction, has contributed to the exodus, but Pearce says his law has given migrants an extra push.

RUSSELL PEARCE: I have not seen any actual caravans, but we've been told they're leaving by the droves. We've seen businesses shut down. We've seen businesses that cater to illegal aliens impacted. And I've been told that, when the school year is out, you're going to see thousands more leave.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are they leaving because of the law? Or are they leaving because of the economy?

RUSSELL PEARCE: Well, I think it's a combination, out of fairness.

JEFFREY KAYE: The departure of migrants has had a noticeable effect. Many stores are vacant. Those still open have seen a dramatic drop-off in business.

Erica Hernandez co-owns a shop that sells Spanish-language music. She might have to close up.

ERICA HERNANDEZ, Store Owner (through translator): People right now don't want to spend, because, if they get sent back to Mexico, they want to make sure they have enough money saved up. They don't know what's going to happen.

JEFFREY KAYE: A nearby restaurant has similar problems. The manager is Alberto Games.

ALBERTO GAMES, Restaurant Manager (through translator): Our customers are mostly Mexicans. And Mexicans here in Phoenix, most of them are illegal. So if you're opening up a business to serve that community, you're going to be limited.

JEFFREY KAYE: But at one Phoenix institution servicing immigrants, business is up. At the Mexican consulate, Mexicans moving back across the border come to get their papers in order.

Children born in the United States to Mexican nationals are fingerprinted in order to get Mexican, as well as U.S. citizenship. Restaurant workers Ricardo Miras and Miriam Salazar say they are returning out of fear.

RICARDO MIRAS, Restaurant Worker (through translator): We won't have the material things, but we'll live a happier life, less stress.

MIRIAM SALAZAR, Restaurant Worker (through translator): We'll be able to go to the store in peace, go for a walk in the park. For instance, after we leave, we're going to take the kids to the zoo, because for a year we haven't taken them anywhere. We haven't gone to the movies; we haven't been to the stores. We just go out quickly to buy what we need and we go back home.

JEFFREY KAYE: At a once-busy day labor center in Phoenix, Ken Hanish drove up to hire a landscaper, offering to pay $10 to $12 an hour in cash, no papers needed.

KEN HANISH, Landscaper: A few years ago, this used to be filled with people that wanted to work, you know. And they're good work. They're good workers. They're Christian people who want to support their families and so on.

And I don't get involved in the immigration issue. I mean, you know, that's for the politicians to wrangle about. All I'm concerned about is getting what I want done.

JEFFREY KAYE: So the immigration status is of no concern to you?

KEN HANISH: Not really.

Business, civil rights backlash

JEFFREY KAYE: While an unknown number of employers quietly defy the sanctions legislation...

ACTIVIST: ... hate crimes and racial profiling are not only immoral, but also illegal.

JEFFREY KAYE: ... activists are organizing coalitions and staging street demonstrations to protest the stricter laws.

It's not unusual to find immigrants' rights groups and Latino organizations joined together to fight stricter immigration proposals, but the Arizona employer sanctions law has led to the creation of an unusual alliance between civil rights groups and businesses.

JASON LEVECKE, Businessman: We must not go about the business of acting as if immigrants, even illegal ones, are leeches on our society. They aren't.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jason LeVecke is the most visible link between businesspeople and activists. A grandson of the founder of the Carl's Jr. restaurant chain, LeVecke is a Republican who co-owns 60 Carl's Jr. franchises around Arizona. He says the decision to deprive illegal immigrants of jobs has hurt the state's economy.

JASON LEVECKE: But when you do real damage to the economy and disrupt it the way we have in Arizona, you are shutting down the rides. But in this case, the rides are businesses.

They're getting shut down. They're getting hurt by this economy because of a law that doesn't invite more people into the state. It actually drives people out.

JEFFREY KAYE: LeVecke is part of two new business groups, one, Wake Up Arizona, the other, Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. They and civil rights organizations are challenging the sanctions law in the courts. They contend the system that is supposed to verify the legal status of workers is unreliable and that the Arizona law is unconstitutional and unfair.

JASON LEVECKE: I can't invest up to $2 million on a new restaurant just to have it be closed down because some manager at the location did something that I wasn't aware of.

JEFFREY KAYE: After talking to employees, LeVecke says he decided to become more than a business advocate.

JASON LEVECKE: Sometimes you get reined in by the economic folks and the business owners who say, "Well, stick to the economic issues." I can't. I need to talk about the human side of this, too, because it's appalling.

JEFFREY KAYE: LeVecke helped establish and fund a call center and Web site called Respect-Respeto.

LYDIA GUZMAN, Respect-Respeto: Respect-Respeto is a hotline that was established to help the community with the different situations that they've come across, in the instances of racial profiling, extortion, abuse, discrimination.

JEFFREY KAYE: Lydia Guzman, the hotline's director, says the group provides free legal assistance. She says she's been pleasantly surprised by the support from the business community.

Fears of a labor shortage

LYDIA GUZMAN: In order for a business to thrive and function, you have to have a good team. And if you have a workforce that is living in fear constantly, and you have a workforce that is afraid to come into work, then it affects business.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Sheriff Arpaio says, in this case, fear is a good thing.

JOSEPH ARPAIO, Sheriff, Maricopa County: If the fear is out there, and the employers fear the sheriff and his deputies coming into their business, and there is a possibility of losing your license, and the fear generates them to say, "Wait a minute, I'm not hiring any illegal. I'm going to follow the rules, the federal rules. I'm going to check everybody out or, if I do have illegals, I'm going to get rid of them right now before the sheriff shows up," isn't that great?

JEFFREY KAYE: That's exactly what steel fabricator Sheridan Bailey did. He fired 12 out of 40 workers after the sanctions law passed, afraid he'd be shut down.

He's now helping bankroll the legal challenge and working with businesspeople in other states to fend off similar proposals everywhere.

But with all the tough talk about going after employers, so far the only people arrested in the enforcement of Arizona's anti-illegal immigrant laws have been migrants. Not one case has been filed against a business.

ANDREW THOMAS, Maricopa County Attorney: It is a very limited tool.

JEFFREY KAYE: Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who came to office pledging to crack down on illegal immigrants, is now doing his best to lower expectations.

ANDREW THOMAS: We're not going to bring cases until we have a solid case and until we've reached that threshold of evidence, which is showing that the employer knowingly or intentionally hired an illegal immigrant. And, I mean, it's possible that we'll never reach that threshold; I don't think that will happen.

JEFFREY KAYE: But as migrants leave Arizona, either through deportation or voluntarily, many state officials are becoming increasingly concerned about a labor shortage. Their solution is to press for a program to bring in temporary workers from Mexico.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear challenges to the Arizona employer sanctions law.