Enforcing Arizona's employer sanctions law is hard. So hard, in fact, that no prosecutor in the state has even tried to shut a business down for hiring illegal immigrants since the law took effect Jan. 1.
But in his first in-depth interview about the law since it took effect, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said last week the void may soon be gone.
His office is currently investigating as many as 10 Valley businesses on suspicion of knowingly hiring undocumented workers, he said, and some of the cases may reach the courts by the end of the year.
The revelation came last week after the county raided three popular family water parks owned by a Mesa company and arrested nine employees on suspicion of fraud and immigration violations.
Thomas said the Mesa group, Golfland Entertainment Centers, is among the companies under investigation, but he declined to name the rest. Some of the other businesses are large, he said, and include restaurants, a construction firm and a janitorial company.
Word of the investigations also comes at about the same time as The Associated Press reported that authorities elsewhere in Arizona have looked closely at nearly four dozen such cases.
"The public is rightly demanding action in terms of what role employers play," Thomas said from his ninth-floor office in downtown Phoenix. "I wouldn't put a deadline on it, but we may well have announcements on the other ones in the next six months."
The investigations arrive at a time when some have grown skeptical that business owners were being targeted at all.
Passed last year, the Legal Arizona Workers Act was meant to evaporate the job market for illegal immigrants by scaring businesses away from hiring them. If a company is caught knowingly hiring such workers, the state can suspend its business license or shut it down.
Advocates hoped the punishments would be enough to convince companies to hire legal, documented immigrants or U.S. citizens. But six months in, no punishments have taken place.
"It's interesting that it's taken this long for the county attorney's office to bring prosecution or enforcement down on a business," said Farrell Quinlan, a spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, a Valley group that has sued to block the law. "We thought it was going to move forward earlier."
A lot of Arizonans thought so, too.
As the Jan. 1 start date approached, there were accounts of immigrants leaving the state and businesses struggling to find employees. Business groups warned that the law could badly injure the state's economy by driving away investors who worried their money would be lost to prosecution.
One of the difficulties of prosecution, though, has been that the bar is set very high to shut down a business, Thomas said.
A prosecutor has to prove the employer knew he was hiring an illegal immigrant, and proving intent is tough to do, he said.
"We follow the evidence and see if what we have at the end of the day is an employer sanctions case," Thomas said. Despite hundreds of tips that have come in to county authorities, few have risen to that level, he said.
Another difficulty is that any violation of the law is a civil offense, not a criminal one. That means investigators don't have tools like subpoenas or search warrants at their disposal.
In some cases, Thomas said, investigators have been left only to walk in the front door of a business and simply start asking questions. If the business doesn't want to answer, they don't have to, he said.
"People obviously can assert their rights, and I'm not going to question that," said Thomas.
Still, the Valley's chief prosecutor said he would like to have "some subpoena power" to help investigate the cases. "The investigative tools provided by the employer sanctions law are very limited," he said.
That request worries some critics who say Thomas' office has been known to push the limits of the powers it has already.
"If there's one example of an abuse of power, it did come through their office," said Julie Pace, one of the lead attorneys in an ongoing federal suit to strike down the law.
She pointed to last year's investigation of Phoenix New Times newspaper, in which a subpoena by the county attorney's set off a hailstorm of criticism throughout the Valley.
In that criminal case, a prosecutor obtained a subpoena ordering the newspaper to turn over records of the reading habits of everyone who visited its Web site during a certain period.
The prosecutor was trying to find out whether New Times broke an obscure state law by posting the home address of Sheriff Joe Arpaio online. The broad subpoena ended up killing the case and resulted in accusations of intimidation and abuse of power by Thomas' office.
"I don't think that's warranted or appropriate (for employer sanctions) at all," Pace said.
One of the lawmakers who sponsored the original sanctions bill, State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Scottsdale, said, though, that he would be willing to provide more power if it would help enforce the law.
"If the message I get from prosecutors is that the law needs more prosecutorial tools, I'll give it to them," Kavanagh said.
He added: "The law is in its early stages and we'll see how it plays out."
Critics have also hit Thomas for his willingness to accept and investigate anonymous tips in the cases. Some argue that anonymity could lead to dirty tricks by competing businesses.
Thomas defended the practice last week, saying there should be no concern. "It's what you do with the anonymous tips" that matters, he said.
He also said his office gives "higher priority" to tips that come from people who willingly come forward, as well as those who give very specific information.
The raids of the water parks last week in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix provided a small window into how an investigation happens.
The investigation wasn't typical, Thomas said, because it also involved criminal allegations against the employees.
Investigators raided the water parks and arrested several people on suspicion of fraud, but were also able to use a search warrant for the fraud case to get access to employment records that could help with the civil case, Thomas said.
While that tack may help push an employer sanctions case forward, Phoenix lawyer Antonio Bustamante said it's improper to mix civil cases with criminal.
"It deceives the community," he said. Detectives went into the business under "the guise" of a criminal case, but ended up investigating the business for a civil violation. "You don't get search warrants to do that kind of thing," Bustamante said.
An outspoken critic of how the county handles immigration enforcement, Bustamante also suspects that the employer sanctions law will be used to go after immigrants more often than business owners.
"All you have to do is start scaring the bejesus out of the employer and they'll start coughing people up," he said.
Thomas said, however, that's basically the point. The goal of the law was to drive illegal immigrants out of the state, not to shut down businesses.
And at the six-month mark, there's proof it's been working that way, he said.
"I think there was a lot of noncompliance before," he said.
But now, there's evidence of undocumented workers moving elsewhere. Even without a single case in court, he called that a success.
It's a "narrow tool," Thomas said, that has created a "broad deterrence" of illegal immigration for Arizona.