MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Starting today, 150,000 employers in Arizona could have their business licenses suspended or even revoked under the toughest state law of its kind. It's designed to punish companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Even before authorities have had a chance to start enforcing the measure, it's already causing a few shockwaves in Arizona.
NPR's Ted Robbins has been watching developments there and joins us now from Tucson. And Ted, what have you seen in the days leading up to the law taking effect?
TED ROBBINS: Well, Michele, there's actually been more of an effect on workers so far than on employers. I've spoken with a number of them who are in the country illegally, workers that is. They're leaving. They're going home mostly to Mexico, to other states like Nevada or New Mexico, which they perceive as more friendly to immigrant workers. It's pretty quiet on the border today because of the holiday, but some trade groups like the Arizona Contractors Association say legal workers are leaving because of what they see as hostility toward Hispanics. Of course, the construction industry is in a slump. And that could be affecting things, too.
NORRIS: So what do we see as the likely impact of this new law?
ROBBINS: We're headed in to the high season for tourism in Arizona. So it's possible we could see effects shortly. They estimate 10 percent of Arizona's workforce to be here illegally. That's much higher in the hospitality industry. Hotels, resorts and, of course, in construction. People who like this law, they say it'll cut down on what is spent providing services for those here illegally. They also say it could attract more legal workers by resulting in higher wages. Those who oppose the law say higher wages mean higher prices. And they say illegal workers give as much to the economy as they take.
NORRIS: Now, employers have to sign up to verify worker documents through this online federal data base. How is that working?
ROBBINS: As of the end of the year, only about six percent of the state's employers have signed up for the E-Verify program. As far as the federal government is concerned, E-Verify is a voluntary pilot program. Another state, Illinois, actually forbids employers from using it until the government can assure that E-Verify is pretty much always accurate. Two audits say that it returns false results between six and 10 percent of the time. That's one reason business and civil rights groups in Arizona went to court to challenge the law's constitutionality.
NORRIS: But the courts refuse to block the law, is that correct?
ROBBINS: Right. Twice, in fact. But the courts didn't address the law's merits. They only said it wasn't enough of an emergency to stop the law from taking effect. So a two-day hearing on the merits is scheduled for mid-January. It also maybe one reason so few employers have signed up for E-Verify. They're waiting or they're not hiring.
NORRIS: Now, as we said, Arizona now has the toughest employer sanction law, are other states following suit?
ROBBINS: Yes. Example, Tennessee has a law that took effect today also. It finds businesses caught hiring illegal workers. By one count, 17 states are considering laws similar to Arizona's. Foes of illegal immigration are coordinating their efforts through groups like Judicial Watch - they're trying to step in where Congress and the President have failed to address the immigration issue.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Ted Robbins speaking to us from Tucson about Arizona's tough new immigration law, a law that takes effect today.
Thank you, Ted.
ROBBINS: You're welcome.