Supreme Court Looks at Arizona Law Punishing Employers for Hiring Illegal Workers

BY Meghan K. Welsh  December 8, 2010 at 1:01 PM EST

On Wednesday the Supreme Court examines a case that centers around a 2007 Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire workers illegally.

The Legal Arizona Workers Act requires employers to verify the eligibility of new workers through a federal database. Violators can have their business licenses suspended or revoked. The employer database — called E-Verify — was the subject of this public service announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE”:

Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform — or “FAIR” — says he thinks the program is working.

“We know that the E-Verify program is effective because employers get a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ and then the alien has a certain number of days so he can get the information or he’s not going to be hired,” Stein said. “So clearly it’s worked. E-Verify would work a lot better if the Obama administration would actually apprehend illegal aliens found on worksites, and they’re not doing that.”

But National Immigration Forum’s Grisella Martinez, who opposes the Arizona law, believes E-Verify will not fix immigration issues.

“When it comes to E-Verify, you know, no technology on its own is going to solve the problems of illegal immigration, and E-Verify is always put out there as the magic bullet that’s going to do that for us. But no technology erases the laws of supply and demand,” she said.

As for implementation of the law, a survey by the Associated Press of all county prosecutor offices in Arizona found that of 101 employer sanctions complaints, only three have led to civil cases being filed.

But it’s also being used to target workers.

Dozens of business raids have led to the arrests of 131 illegal immigrant workers on criminal charges, like using forged documents or stolen identities to get work.

Back in 2007, when the law was passed, Arizona PBS profiled a local landscaping business.

Owner Rod Pappas said it would greatly affect his business and their ability to make a profit.

“What I didn’t realize was the impact it was going to have on some of my employees and some of my fellow workers,” Pappas said. “They have become frightened over the law … a lot of them are making preparations to go back to Mexico for good.

“The law does not really apply to employees as much as it does to the employer. I am the one that they’re targeting right now. The employers of those that knowingly and intentionally hire illegals are basically on the chopping board right now.”

“Eduardo,” who had worked for the business for eight years and been in the U.S. for 15, said he did not want to move his family back to Mexico. He was frightened and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s hard to decide what they’re going to do, what we’re going to do. Because basically we’ve got our life here, all our roots are here.”

Now, three years later, many looking for work say the anti-immigrant fervor is still making employers nervous.

Backed by the Obama administration, businesses and civil rights groups have insisted that only the federal government, not states, can enforce immigration laws.

Supporters of the law say the federal government has not done enough to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants and that states must step in.

Wednesday’s case is a reflection of the broader debate over immigration policy taking place in Arizona.

Outspoken supporters and opponents of the controversial and more expansive immigration law — known as SB1070 – staged events across the country when it was enacted earlier this year.

Court watchers are looking at Wednesday’s hearing for any clues as to how the justices could handle SB1070 — should it come their way.