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By Washington Post
Published January 1, 2008
The new ground zero in the debate over illegal immigration is Arizona, where the nation's toughest and potentially most far-reaching crackdown on undocumented workers and their employers takes effect today. The Arizona law, passed resoundingly by the state legislature after Congress failed to enact immigration reform last summer, penalizes companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants by suspending their business licenses for up to 10 days; on a second offense, the business license would be revoked - what Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has called a corporate "death penalty." Thus the Arizona law may become a test case for how much pain a state is willing to endure, and inflict, in the name of ridding itself of a population that contributes enormously to its economic growth and prosperity.
Illegal immigrants have flocked to Arizona for years to fill jobs that native-born people don't want. While the state's unemployment rate remains low, undocumented employees comprise an estimated 9 to 12 percent of the state's 3-million workers. Companies in agriculture, construction and service industries rely heavily on illegal immigrants, and any successful attempt to drive them out will have economic repercussions that may be severe.
In construction alone, Judith Gans of the University of Arizona has estimated that a 15 percent cut in the state's immigrant work force would result in direct losses of about 56,000 jobs and some $6.6-billion in economic output. The direct loss to state tax revenue would be about $270-million. The study, and others like it, including in Texas, refute the arguments that illegal immigrants are an overall burden on state economies because of the education, health care and other services they require; in fact they contribute heavily to economic growth.
That explains why so many business owners were livid in June when the U.S. Senate killed legislation to provide an eventual path to citizenship for the 12-million illegal immigrants already living in America; to create a legal mechanism to satisfy the economy's appetite for hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers; and to tighten enforcement of existing sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. That political failure has spawned hundreds of state and local attempts to deal with illegal immigration, including Arizona's.
The Arizona law illustrates the self-defeating hazard of addressing one part of the problem - enforcement - without also recognizing the plain reality of America's need for immigrant labor. It was enacted and is taking effect in an atmosphere of extreme emotion, ugly diatribes and occasional street scuffles - the sort of environment that defeats rational discourse. It is likely to be enforced with gusto in and around Phoenix by an ambitious state prosecutor who is urging citizens to blow the whistle on offending companies - anonymously if they wish - and by a county sheriff whose stock in trade is hounding, arresting and helping to deport immigrants whose behavior or appearance suggests they may be here illegally.
Although the authorities are paying lip service to their commitment to fair enforcement, they are in fact contributing to a situation tailor-made to enable racial profiling and false, defamatory or vengeful reports by those who might harbor a grudge against an employer. Already, in the weeks before the law is to take effect, there were reports of businesses considering moving out of state or reconsidering in-state expansion plans, as well as hundreds of illegal immigrants pulling their children out of school and seeking work elsewhere.
There is little clarity about the law itself, which is being challenged in court by major business associations, Hispanic groups and the ACLU. The statute was sloppily drafted, and Napolitano signed it at least in part because she feared an even more draconian ballot initiative by immigrant-bashers. While Napolitano believes the law applies only to workers hired after Jan. 1, Andrew Thomas, the Maricopa County (Phoenix) prosecutor whose purview includes most of the state's population and work force, says it applies to any employee on a firm's payroll, regardless of hiring date.
Reasonable suspicions exist that many companies will continue hiring and paying illegal workers off the books to evade the law's sanctions, which may give rise to a sizable underground economy and encourage exploitation of vulnerable workers. The system of verification that employers will be required to use to check workers' status relies on a federal database whose error rate regarding non-native-born Americans is believed to be as high as 10 percent - and for which Congress has appropriated no funds beyond next year. All in all, a recipe for chaos and confusion.
Arizona has undergone explosive population growth in recent decades, along with sharp demographic change. At least 14 percent of the state's 6-million people are foreign-born, more than twice the percentage in 1990. Much of that growth can be explained by illegal immigration; the 620,000 (mostly undocumented) noncitizens in the state in 2004 were almost four times the number there were in 1990. The shift has contributed to a rise in nativist and outright racist sentiment, as well as to legitimate concerns about the effect of so many illegal immigrants - most of them from one poor country, Mexico - on neighborhoods, crime rates and municipal budgets.
In responding with this law to the popular anger and anxiety about illegal immigration, Arizona may have been within its legal rights; the courts will decide that shortly. But the price the law will exact is likely to be severe - to the state's economy, to thousands of immigrant families and, very likely, to the civil rights of legal Hispanic residents who will come under unwarranted suspicion. Those costs may cause Arizonans to question the prudence of their state lawmakers and highlight the folly of Washington's failure to come to grips with illegal immigration.
[Last modified January 1, 2008, 01:03:47]