Released 04 March 2005  By The Associated Press
Bill would let workers sue if boss hires illegally
The Associated Press
February 28, 2005
Federal law prohibits the hiring of the thousands of foreign workers who sneak into the country each year, but many businesses turn to illegal immigrants to fill construction, agricultural and service industry jobs.
A frustrated Arizona lawmaker says he will push a proposal next year to give American workers the right to sue companies that fire them while keeping illegal immigrants on the payroll. Violators would have their state business licenses suspended.
Supporters say the low pay illegal immigrants accept drives down wages for American employees, and businesses that follow the law can't compete with rivals who use foreign workers.
Opponents say the economy depends on illegal workers because Americans won't take many of these low-paying jobs. Such a proposal also would place a huge burden on businesses, which are limited by antidiscrimination laws in the way they can scrutinize prospective employees, they argue.
If the idea clears the Legislature, it would appear on the 2006 ballot. Political scientists say it could succeed if supporters portray the measure as a way to confront illegal immigration.
In November, an Arizona ballot initiative aimed at denying some public benefits to illegal immigrants was approved by an 11-percentage-point margin.
"There is certainly a predisposition in the electorate to support anything that appears to mediate the problem," said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University professor and pollster.
The idea, similar to a bill now in the Oklahoma Legislature, is opposed by business. Some lawyers also question whether it would conflict with federal law, which they say trumps state law on matters of immigration.
Nonetheless, it reflects the frustration over the federal government's perceived inaction on repairing America's immigration system.
More than any other state in recent years, Arizona has been dogged by a heavy flow of illegal immigrants. The surge began after the government tightened enforcement in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego during the mid-1990s.
The lawmakers pushing the idea in Arizona and Oklahoma say if the federal government cracked down on illegal hiring, there would be no need to seek the penalties.
"This will allow local people to take action and not just rely on the federal government," said Republican Rep. Russell Pearce of Arizona, who planned to file the proposal this year but said he will wait until 2006.
The idea isn't expected to confront border security, migrant deaths and other larger immigration problems, but supporters say it might dissuade employers from hiring illegal workers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for investigating businesses that hire illegal immigrants, said it does plenty of work-site enforcement, but that since the 2001 terror attacks its priorities have shifted.
Work sites with implications for national security - nuclear plants, military bases, airports, chemical plants - take first priority. Next, officials target flagrant violators, in hopes the example will deter others, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The shift in focus has led to a drop in the number of businesses investigated by immigration agents, from 3,844 in 1999 to 523 last year. The latter figure doesn't include investigations with national security implications, Boyd said.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, said it's unreasonable to think that the government, with its limited resources and focus of national security, can put a full-court press on employers hiring illegal workers.
"We need to take the Mexican busboy off the table so we can focus resources on people who want to do us harm," Kelley said.
Kelley said the answer is for the government to allow migrants to work here legally, because they will continue to stream into the country for jobs.
"If I got enough money in Mexico, I wouldn't come to the USA," said Roy Albaran, shaking off the cold as he scans the parking lot of a home improvement store in Phoenix for someone who might hire him.
Albaran said he can make as much as 15 times the money doing landscaping or remodeling work in Arizona as he can back in Toluca, Mexico.
Ana Avendano Denier, a lawyer and immigration expert for the AFL-CIO, which hasn't taken a position on this new approach, rejected the notion that American workers won't take these jobs and said creating state laws won't do anything about illegal hiring.
Advocates for limiting immigration said all taxpayers end up paying the costs of illicit labor because states, especially those along the U.S.-Mexico border, shoulder huge health-care and education costs for illegal immigrants.
"It's not cheap labor," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It's subsidized labor."
Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Adelson, the Democrat who sponsored the proposal in his state, said he doesn't regard his bill as anti-immigrant but as a way of giving legal workers the chance to compete fairly.
"You can't open the border and allow countries to export their unemployment challenges on us," Adelson said. His bill, which wouldn't have needed voter approval, missed a Thursday deadline for getting a committee hearing.
Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Business Research at Arizona State University, said if the flow of foreign labor were cut off, the country would see labor shortages. That would lead to higher prices for goods and services because businesses would have to pay laborers more to come work here, he said.
Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers, an opponent of the idea, said it wouldn't be fair to expose a business to a lawsuit if an illegal worker presented work documents that appeared authentic but turned out to be fake.