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The Nation

Arizona's slamming door

It has had success in combating illegal immigration on its own -- though not without bruising some citizens.

April 05, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — As it has become the favorite entry point for undocumented migrants trying to sneak into the United States, Arizona has become a laboratory for whether a state can single-handedly combat illegal immigration.

In recent years it has barred illegal immigrants from receiving government services, from winning punitive damages in lawsuits and from posting bail for serious crimes. A new state law shuts down businesses that hire illegal workers. And the sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and three-fifths of the state's population, dispatches his deputies and volunteer "posses" to search for illegal street vendors or immigrants being smuggled through the county.

"What I love about what Arizona is doing is we don't have to rely on the federal government," said state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican who has authored most of the toughest measures. "It has truly woken up the rest of America that states can fix that problem."

The campaign has had an effect: Illegal immigrants complain it's impossible to find good work and are leaving the state.

It has also taken a toll on some U.S. citizens.

Juan Carlos Ochoa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in an upper-middle-class subdivision near Phoenix named Laguna Hills, can't find a job because a government database classifies him as a possible illegal immigrant. Pauline Munoz, a 39-year-old mother of six who was born in Phoenix, has been afraid to leave her apartment since being held by sheriff's deputies for 15 hours for a driving infraction -- an example of what she believes is racial profiling.

And businesses that cater to immigrants both legal and illegal report a huge drop in sales, increasing the drag on the state's already troubled economy.

"There used to be so many people they would fight for parking out there," said Omar Flores, 31, manager of La Mexicana market in western Phoenix. Now the grocery store is mostly empty.

Economist Dawn McLaren of Arizona State University said that part of what's pushing immigrants out is the collapse of the state's housing-based economy. In the construction sector, which employs many immigrants, 10% of jobs have vanished over the last year as home prices have plunged.

The economic woes are magnified by the employer sanctions law, which has led some businesses to say they won't expand in Arizona, McLaren said. "It exacerbates the downturn," she said.

No one knows how many immigrants have left the state, and the most recent government figures show Arizona growing robustly -- as of July, Maricopa was the fastest-growing county in the nation.

But enough immigrants have left that the government of Sonora, the Mexican state bordering Arizona, has complained about how many people have arrived on its doorstep.

Pearce says the overall effect has been undeniably positive for Arizona. "Smaller class sizes, shorter emergency room waits," he said. "Even if [illegal immigrants] are paying taxes -- and most of them aren't -- the cost to taxpayers is huge."

The biggest effect has come from the new employer sanctions law, which took effect in January.

The law is fairly straightforward.

Any business caught hiring illegal immigrants is put on probation. If it is caught doing the same thing again, the state revokes its business license.

The only defense for an employer is if it used E-Verify, a federal pilot project to allow businesses to confirm the legality of their laborers.

The law did what it was supposed to with Jorge Hernandez, a 32-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico. He had been working in a Phoenix tire shop for years when in December his bosses told him they'd have to let him go because of the new law. Now he struggles to support his family by working as a day laborer and is thinking of leaving.

"I've been in Arizona for 11 years," he said. "This is the worst one. For those years I worked every day. I had money, I had a car."

Hernandez dreams of moving to New Mexico, where friends have told him the economy is stronger and sentiment against illegal immigrants weaker. "They don't have E-Verify there," he said in Spanish.

E-Verify has at least one significant flaw -- its treatment of naturalized U.S. citizens.

Between October 2006 and March 2007, about 3,200 foreign-born U.S. citizens were initially improperly disqualified from working by E-Verify. Their status was later corrected.

Because many did not register their citizenship with the Social Security Administration, they are often listed as possible illegal workers.

That's what apparently happened to Ochoa, 47, who became a citizen in 2000. He quit his job as a car salesman at the end of last year and got hired by a local Dodge dealership in February. Days later, his new employers called him with bad news -- E-Verify classified him as a possible illegal immigrant. He only had a couple of days to convince Social Security that he wasn't.

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