Ariz. Proposes Bill to Stop Loss of Migrant Workers

Instead of waiting for the federal government to take action, the Arizona legislature is proposing a bill that would create a state guest worker program. And while the federal government would have to agree to the plan, the idea has already attracted the attention of lawmakers in other states.

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Lawmakers in Arizona have a plan to bring more workers to their state. The legislature is seriously considering a measure that would create a state-run guest-worker program. That bill was introduced yesterday. And while the federal government would have to agree to the plan, the idea has already attracted the attention of lawmakers in other states - namely Kansas and Colorado. NPR's Ted Robbins has this story.

TED ROBBINS: Arizona has been losing immigrant workers to a tough economy and a harsh new employer sanction law. State Senator Marsha Arzberger has heard from farmers, hotels, and the owner of a local steel company.

State Senator MARSHA ARZBERGER (Democrat, Arizona): He said that he lost a third of his employees in the first month of the year. And he can't find workers that want to do that kind of work, and he pays them $50,000 a year.

ROBBINS: So Arzberger, a Democrat, sat down with other lawmakers and drafted a bill. Here's how the program would operate. In Arizona business, any business in any industry has to certify that it can't find American workers.

State Sen. ARZBERGER: Then they send a recruiter to Mexico to find the kind of workers they need, and those people are fingerprinted, photographed, they're background checked in both the United States and the country of Mexico before they're issued their legal card.

ROBBINS: That state card would only be good to go from Mexico to Arizona for a two-year stay. Of course, the federal government already issues work visas. But even it admits the process is a bureaucratic mess - so bad, many employers don't even use it. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao recently announced she's considering changes, but Marsha Arzberger says Arizona can't wait - although it can't exactly start running its own border security operation, either.

State Sen. ARZBERGER: What we need is authorization for the border agents to accept this card as a legal worker card, and then the scanning equipment.

ROBBINS: She hopes the Department of Homeland Security will go along if employers pay the program's cost. Cost is just one reason Arizona State Representative Russell Pearce opposes the bill. He points out that nearly half of all those now in this country illegally came in legally and overstayed their visas.

State Representative RUSSELL PEARCE (Republican, Arizona): So I want some guarantee that if they leave, they abscond, that the taxpayer doesn't have to pay for the locate, the arrest and the deportation.

ROBBINS: Pearce, a Republican, is the force behind the state's employer sanction law, a law which suspends or revokes a business license if an employer is caught knowingly hiring illegal workers. Pearce says employers just want to use a guest-worker program to undercut wages with cheap labor. Pearce does acknowledge that agriculture may suffer from a labor shortage. He says his constituents would support a guest-worker program focused solely on that industry.

State Rep. PEARCE: But they're not going to support a bill that's for construction, for mowing lawns, for washing cars - can't support that.

ROBBINS: The bill does call for employers to follow existing labor laws, and it would revoke the guest-worker card if any provision of the law is broken. The Department of Homeland Security would not comment on the proposal. Department spokesman Russ Knocke did say in an email that the attempt shows the need for Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform. The Arizona bill is being fast-tracked through the legislature. It'll be a real test of employers' strength versus the state's anti-immigrant forces. But if Arizona can find a way to implement a guest-worker program acceptable to both sides, it could be a model for other states and maybe Congress.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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