Phoenix’s Crackdown on Illegal Immigration

A year ago Roberto promised to pay a smuggler $1,400 for safe passage from the Mexican border to Arizona, where he heard there was plenty of work. After a punishing three-day trek through the desert, the 30-year-old Mexican citizen arrived in Phoenix and quickly obtained two jobs, one as a baker and one as a dishwasher. With his $580 weekly earnings, he paid off the smuggler and began sending money home to his wife and two children. He expected to live and work in Phoenix for years.

Like many of the state's estimated 450,000 undocumented immigrants, Roberto (who asked that NEWSWEEK withhold his last name) is reconsidering his plans. The reason: in January a controversial state law went into effect that harshly penalizes the 150,000 businesses that employ illegal workers. First offenders face a 10-day suspension of their business license, and second offenders may have their licenses revoked permanently. Meanwhile, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been targeting illegal immigrants in a series of recent sweeps in the Phoenix area. The law—and the sheriff—have harsh critics. On April 4 Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the sheriff for potential civil rights violations. Arpaio's sweeps are "publicity stunts in an election year," Gordon tells NEWSWEEK. "But they endanger the welfare of citizens and policemen alike."

Since the employer sanctions law went into effect, Roberto has been fired from one job because he had no documents. He quit his other job to seek higher-paying day labor, but that never panned out. Now he earns less than the meager $120 a week he made as a construction worker back in Mexico. Roberto and others like him are leaving the city and moving to other states or back across the border. While reliable statistics are impossible to come by, area businesses are starting to feel the resulting labor shortage.

The law isn't Roberto's only foe. Anti-illegal-immigration activists have targeted the north Phoenix day labor center where he and others look for work. One of the activists is Al Roglin, 54. For the past few weeks Roglin and several other protestors have been using video cameras to record the license plate numbers and car makes of anyone driving into the center who they suspect might be a prospective employer. Roglin hands the information over to Arpaio's office. "There isn't a single person here who is opposed to legal immigration," insists Roglin, who says illegal immigrants are "vermin" invading the nation.

Both sides of the politically charged immigration issue see the Arizona law as a test case. Business groups and immigrants' rights activists are challenging the constitutionality of the law in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Julie Pace, a Phoenix attorney for business groups, says the law encourages businesses to use an unreliable federal database, called E-Verify, that wrongly passes some undocumented workers through the system, thus allowing them to work, while blocking other workers who actually have legal status. But the law's sponsor, state representative Russell Pearce, says the system is accurate and that the criticism is unwarranted. Pearce believes Arizona's new law will eventually be seen "the most effective and nondiscriminatory" anti-illegal-immigration law in the nation.

In the meantime, local businesses are suffering from an already tight labor market. Ann Seiden, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, says the new law has had a "significant impact" on the migration of workers out of the state. "I can't emphasize enough that the labor shortage has been severe and continues to be severe," she says.

For example, David Jones, president of the Arizona Contractors Association, says about 35 percent of Arizona's 280,000 construction workers are Latinos, and even with a downturn in housing construction, it's hard to find workers. "We have created an atmosphere in which Latinos, whether legal or illegal, no longer feel welcome here," he says. The sheriff's sweeps involve deputies in unmarked and marked vehicles, on motorcycles, on horseback and in helicopters. Cars with Latino passengers are often stopped for minor violations, like broken taillights.

The "climate of fear in Arizona" has also caused longtime agricultural workers to leave, says Joe Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau, a statewide coalition of farmers and ranchers. In the Yuma area, where agricultural workers earn from $10 to $19 per hour, farmers couldn't find enough laborers to harvest their lettuce crop, Sigg says. Other farmers have stopped planting labor-intensive vegetables like lettuce in favor of mechanically harvested alfalfa and wheat, and some farmers are considering selling out altogether, he says. "If the agricultural industry can't get laborers, the land will be converted to other uses and we'll put our food production at the mercy of other countries," Sigg predicts.

The law's effects can also be seen in once thriving neighborhoods. Tom Simplot, a realtor and Phoenix City Council member who represents a heavily Latino district, blames the employer sanctions law and the fear caused by the sheriff's sweeps for driving immigrants out. Immigrant homeowners have "moved out in the middle of the night," he says, leaving behind empty houses that now attract vandals and drug dealers. Although there's no hard data yet, the sweeps have caused more migrants to leave the Phoenix area than other parts of the state, contends Michael Nowakowski, a Latino city council member. "It's scary and confusing and a waste of tax dollars," he says.

It will take six to nine months for the hard data from housing foreclosures and apartment rentals to confirm the exodus, says Phoenix economist Elliot Pollack. The true effect of migrant flight on the state's already tight labor force may be masked by the fact that Arizona is in the grips of its worst recession since the 1970s, Pollack says. "We know people have left town, but we don't know the effect, because the economy is weak anyway," he says.

The sheriff, who has concurrent jurisdiction to enforce laws in Phoenix and other towns in Maricopa County, says such criticism is unfounded; he's simply enforcing the law. Arpaio, who has worked out an agreement with federal authorities to catch undocumented immigrants, has turned over more than 11,300 illegal immigrants to the feds. Many of these immigrants were already in the county jail and were discovered during routine document checks. Arpaio's deputies have themselves arrested about 1,826 illegal immigrants. "I won't stop arresting illegals," Arpaio tells NEWSWEEK.

A proposed law allowing guest workers from other countries to enter the state legally is winding its way through the Arizona legislature. But it may not come soon enough for Roberto, who plans on returning to Mexico in a few weeks if he can't find work.