AZ lawmakers approve changes to employer sanctions law

The Associated Press - April 29th, 2008

By JACQUES BILLEAUD Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature approved a proposal Monday aimed at correcting perceived flaws in a state law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

The proposed changes sprang from complaints by business groups that the law was unfair to employers whose operating licenses could be suspended or revoked for violations.

Business groups succeeded in getting the bill to narrow the employees to whom the law applies and to create protections for employers who make good-faith efforts to follow the rules. Even so, they don't think the state should have its own employer sanctions because they said cracking down on illegal hirings is the responsibility of the federal government.

"In terms of what the business community had to swallow to begin with, I think the clarifications that are in there are more than fair," said Ann Seiden, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, one of several business groups that have sought to overturn the law.

The original law, which took effect in January, was intended to lessen the economic incentive for foreign workers to sneak into Arizona, the busiest illegal entry point along the nation's southern border. An estimated one in 10 workers in Arizona is an illegal immigrant.

The law requires the suspension or revocation of the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Employers also were required to check the employment eligibility of their workers through a federal database.

The revisions proposal, which won final passage in a 22-4 vote by the Senate, is headed to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who has declined to say whether she would sign it into law.

The law had been criticized for being unclear about whether it applied to all employees on the payroll or those hired after the law took effect Jan. 1. The latest bill clarifies that the law applies only to workers hired in this and subsequent years.

Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City, a supporter of the law, said the clarification prompted him to vote against the latest proposal, because when he helped negotiate the law last year, he believed it applied to all workers. "I don't think it needs fixing," Gould said. "I just want them to enforce the law."

The bill also contained some provisions that were sought by advocates for tougher immigration enforcement.

The bill also would prohibit state and local government agencies from giving business licenses to people who don't provide proof that their presence in the country is lawful.

On one of their key gripes, business groups failed to get lawmakers to prohibit people from making anonymous complaints of illegal hiring. They argued that anonymous complaints would leave employers vulnerable to harassment from competitors or disgruntled workers.

Even so, the businesses succeeded in getting protections put in the bill for employers who make good-faith efforts to follow the law.

Under a voluntary compliance program created by the bill, workers who aren't verified through the database would have their Social Security numbers verified by the employer through the federal government. And participants would have to agree to provide prosecutors with documents showing employees were verified through the database or the Social Security checks.

The bill said participants wouldn't be in violation of the law if they acted in good faith in doing the verifications and providing the necessary records.

Republican Sen. Jack Harper of Surprise, who voted for making the changes to the law, said the bill also would close a major loophole by heading off possible attempts by some businesses to make end runs around the law.

Lawmakers were concerned that unscrupulous employers would insulate themselves by hiring subcontractors who then employ illegal immigrants. But under the latest bill, employers would violate the law if they used subcontractors who were known to employ illegal immigrants.

"There were just too many loopholes in last year's version," Harper said.

Another unanswered question from the original law was which locations of a given business would have their licenses suspended or revoked.

Under the bill, business license penalties would apply to the business location where an illegal immigrant worked. If the violation occurred elsewhere, the licenses subject to sanctions would be licenses at the employer's primary place of business.

"Some of the things we welcomed and some of the things were not things we would have put forward ourselves," said Farrell Quinlan, a spokesman for several groups that are challenging the law.