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Republicans want voters to approve steep fines for businesses that hire undocumented workers

Immigrant rights advocates derided the idea as ‘SB1070 2.0’ and say it will irreparably harm Arizona’s economy

By Gloria Gomez

Arizona businesses could be fined $10,000 for every undocumented employee under a GOP proposal aiming for the November ballot that opponents warn will push immigrant workers further into the shadows. 

Ben Toma, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, touted the legislation at a Monday morning news conference as a critical defense amid record immigration at the state’s southern border. Last year, the Tucson border sector, which spans 262 miles, was the U.S.-Mexico border sector with the most migrant encounters for five consecutive months, reaching over 80,000 encounters in December. 

Toma, who is jockeying with several GOP candidates for a solidly Republican seat in Congress, said that his proposal presents a solution in the face of Democratic inaction. 

“Our border is being overrun by illegal aliens, and it’s painfully clear at this point that our governor and our president are doing nothing about it,” he said. “When those that are responsible for the disaster at our border refuse to do their jobs, when they look the other way when our children are being killed by drugs, while there’s human trafficking and crime filling our streets, I refuse to stand by and do nothing about it.” 

Titled the “Protecting Arizona Against Illegal Immigration Act,” House Concurrent Resolution 2060 would build on the state’s existing E-Verify law, expanding it to cover industries that were previously exempt, like the construction sector. It would also add E-Verify use as an eligibility requirement for state-funded assistance programs and state-issued license applications — effectively keeping undocumented Arizonans out of a bevy of jobs and away from financial aid opportunities. 

“Our message to illegal immigrants is simple: If you want to take advantage of Americans, go somewhere else,” Toma said. 

The proposal only needs to win approval from both legislative chambers before being sent to the November ballot for voters to consider, circumventing a veto from Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat.

The E-Verify program is a federal online service that electronically cross checks a prospective employee’s information against records from the Social Security Administration and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

In 2007, Arizona lawmakers passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act, prohibiting businesses from knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants and requiring them to use the E-Verify program to determine the legal status of their employees. 

Independent contractors, such as self-employed entrepreneurs, and subcontractors, who are often professionals hired to work on one facet of a project like landscaping or roofing, were left out of the 2007 law’s verification requirements. 

The expanded version would loop in all employers and contractors, leaving out only contractors or subcontractors paid less than $600 per year. It would also enact far harsher penalties for businesses that violate the requirement to use E-Verify in their hiring processes. 

Currently, the Arizona Attorney General and county attorneys can investigate complaints made against businesses and revoke operating licenses, but the new guidelines would empower the courts to assess fines up to $10,000 per each undocumented employee found. And a refusal to use the E-Verify system or obstructing another person’s duty to use it could lead to a class 6 felony charge — which comes with as much as a two-year prison sentence. 

Receiving public assistance would also be contingent on a person’s citizenship status. The proposal mandates that any city that gets state dollars to fund public aid programs, like housing or food assistance, unemployment, health care or disability benefits would first have to use the E-verify system to confirm the recipient’s eligibility. 

While most government aid programs already exclude non-citizens, some federally-funded initiatives offer coverage regardless of citizenship status, like the Federal Emergency Services Program, which helps the state’s Medicaid system cover emergency room visits or life-saving procedures. And some local resources, like low-cost clinics for the uninsured, provide care for immigrants, too.  

For immigrant advocates, the resolution is an unwelcome echo of SB1070, the state’s notorious “show me your papers” law from 2010 that ushered in an era of fear for immigrants and their families. 

Living United for Change in Arizona denounced the resolution as “SB1070 2.0” and warned it would only serve to harm marginalized communities. 

“During SB1070, Arizona lost billions of dollars in revenue, small businesses were negatively impacted, and the state’s image tarnished indefinitely,” LUCHA said in an emailed statement. “This is a step in that direction and part of a concerted effort to target the successful contributions of communities of color and immigrant families in the state.” 

Luisa Ibañez Martinez implored lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee that debated the measure Monday afternoon not to approve it. She told them she was concerned about the effect on the lives of her parents, who are undocumented, and recalled the impact of SB1070. 

Growing up during the aftermath of that law, which allowed police officers to detain people during traffic stops, Martinez said she was constantly terrified her parents would get deported for simply forgetting a turn signal. She urged lawmakers to vote down the new proposal and let mixed status families across the state work without extra hindrances.

“You have the opportunity to do the right thing (for) families like mine, who want to work, pay taxes and contribute to the beautiful state of Arizona,” she said. 

José Patiño, vice president of education and external affairs at Aliento, an immigrant advocacy organization, told the Arizona Mirror after Monday morning’s news conference that he was angry at the rhetoric that so closely mirrored speeches used to champion SB1070. 

He said Aliento and others will likely mount a challenge to the proposal if it does make it to the November ballot, but he fears it will resonate with many voters. Anti-immigrant sentiment, he said, was active during last election’s Prop. 308 campaign, which Aliento was a key force behind. The proposition, which opened up state-funded financial aid for undocumented students and allowed them to pay the same tuition rates as their peers, garnered bipartisan support in 2022 that pushed it over the finish line — but just barely

Patiño added that Aliento and other immigrant advocacy groups have advised undocumented Arizonans to set up their own businesses for years, as a way to earn a living when every other employment opportunity is closed to them. While the federal program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals offers qualifying recipients a work permit, the program has been frozen since 2021, leaving hopeful applicants in the lurch. 

And in Arizona, since the E-Verify law was passed more than a decade ago, becoming an independent contractor was often the only way for young undocumented Arizonans to legally hold a job. Toma’s legislation threatens to upend that and relegate immigrants back to working in the shadows, setting them up for increased exploitation. 

“The alternative is what happened beforehand, which is that they worked under the table,” Patiño said. “You can’t complain if you’re being overworked, or not being paid overtime, because they’re going to be like, ‘Well, you have no rights.’” 

Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee tangled over how to approach undocumented labor, with Republican members advocating for a strict understanding of the law and Democrats calling for a more compassionate view. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, criticized what she perceived as the proposal’s goal of further ostracizing undocumented Arizonans, and warned that cutting them out of the job market would negatively impact the state’s already struggling labor force

“At the core of this bill is the desire to prevent immigrants from being able to earn an honest living in our country,” Gutierrez said. “This will negatively affect construction, agriculture, restaurants and retail in an extreme manner.”  

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, added that blocking the contributions from the state’s more than 200,000 undocumented residents would only serve to worsen Arizona’s economic difficulties. 

“At a time when everyday Arizonans are crying out for relief from increasing costs, our Republican colleagues are passing laws that will only increase the cost of housing and the cost of food,” she said. “We need solutions, we need policies that will allow immigrants to work legally and gain citizenship, not further punishment that demonizes and divides people.” 

Toma disputed the characterization of his proposal as anti-immigrant, saying it instead seeks to shield Arizonans and businesses that do follow the law from competitors that act illegally and represent unfair competition. 

“This is not an anti-immigrant bill, by any stretch,” he told lawmakers on the panel. “I’m an immigrant myself, that would be utterly ridiculous. This is about being supportive of the rule of law and about basic fairness for all of those that do comply.” 

Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, added that the proposal is a valuable deterrent for migrants looking to settle in the Grand Canyon State. 

“Arizona is not a sanctuary state, and this legislation will ensure that it never will be,” he said.

Lawmakers approved the proposal by a vote of 8-7, with only Democrats in opposition. It next goes before the full House for consideration.

Also published by: News From the States and the Arizona Daily Star

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