Arizona Implements Immigration Change

Arizona on Tuesday starts enforcing the country's toughest law regarding employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Violators run the risk of losing their operating license. Some immigrants, citing the hostile environment, are planning to leave the state.

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There's a new law in Arizona. Beginning today, employers who knowingly hire illegal workers face the nation's toughest sanctions. The state may suspend or even revoke a business license if a company hires undocumented workers.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, the measure was having an effect even before it became official.

TED ROBBINS: A few workers and one Chihuahua are sitting around the lobby of the laborers union, Local 383 in Tucson. Things are slow. It's the holiday season. The construction industry is in a slump. But it's Arizona's new law that's sending Salvador Barreras back to Mexico for good. For years he has been going back and forth, crossing legally on a tourist visa, then working illegally - no more.

Mr. SALVADOR BARRERAS: (Speaking Spanish)

ROBBINS: I'm tired of this, he says, because there is too much racism and I don't like it. I'm going back home and I won't come back.

No one knows how many people are leaving the state. But social service agencies who help the undocumented, especially in the Phoenix area, say families are closing bank accounts and moving out of homes and apartments. That self-deportation is exactly what sponsors of the Arizona Fair and Legal Employment Act say they want - to rid the state of an estimated half million illegal workers.

The new law, they say, simply imposes state sanctions for what is already a federal violation.

Mr. TIM NELSON (General Counsel for Governor Janet Napolitano): Keep in mind, the basic offense of not - of hiring illegal or undocumented aliens has been an offense in federal law since 1996, or longer than that.

ROBBINS: But it's been rarely enforced. Tim Nelson is general counsel for Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who signed the law last July.

Mr. NELSON: The basic conduct of business really isn't any different under this law. This law does impose licensing sanctions. And some other states have started to do that, and we think that more states are going to do that until the Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform.

ROBBINS: The Arizona law requires employers to check a worker's documents by enrolling in a federal online database called E-Verify. As of yesterday, only about 10,000 of the state's 150,000 employers had signed up. Immigration and employment attorney Julie Pace says she's not surprised by the low number.

Ms. JULIE PACE (Lawyer): A lot of companies are deciding that they're going to wait till this plays out in court. It's not that far into January to wait it out. They also are doing hiring freezes in January, in the beginning in particular, and they just won't hire anybody, because if you don't hire anybody you don't have to sign up for E-Verify.

ROBBINS: That last point is actually debatable. It's unclear whether the Arizona law applies only to new hires or to all workers. The courts turned down two requests to stop the law from taking effect. But a more substantive hearing on its constitutionality is scheduled for mid-January.

In the meantime, says David Jones, it's not just illegal workers who are leaving. Jones is president of the Arizona Contractors Association.

Mr. DAVID JONES (Arizona Contractors Association): We're seeing companies right now who are losing employees that are legal, but feeling uncomfortable living in this state and going to Nevada or New Mexico or other states that they feel the environment is more friendly.

ROBBINS: The Arizona law will be enforced by the state's 15 county attorneys. They can begin investigating complaints tomorrow, but they say they won't be prepared to prosecute any employers until February.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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