The East Valley’s largest business association broke ranks Tuesday in supporting a bill aimed at punishing employers that knowingly hire illegal workers.
The East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance announced its support for the bill “in concept,” while calling for changes in a key provision of the legislation.
The alliance’s support stands in contrast to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and fractures the unified front of the statewide business community on such legislation.
In the past, businesses have worked to torpedo efforts by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who has led the charge to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers.
Charlie Deaton, president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, said his group
decided it would be better to work with lawmakers to ensure they pass a workable measure.
Business advocacy groups are concerned that an initiative being crafted for the 2008 ballot could be stricter than the legislation.
“I hope the public would recognize that people have studied the issue and give the Legislature some credit. That’s why we elect them,” Deaton said.
The East Valley alliance represents more than 5,500 businesses in Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert, Chandler, Ahwatukee Foothills, Apache Junction and Queen Creek.
Alliance spokesman Eric Emmert said the group supports creating a level playing field for businesses. Under the current bill, an employer could be charged with a low-level felony and face fines ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 for a first-time offense. Businesses could lose their licenses if they violate the law.
“Until the federal government invests the resources to enforce its own laws, a workable legislative response is in order,” Emmert said.
The alliance is also lobbying to change the bill. The current version requires all employers contracting with the state to run employee background checks through a federal database operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Common delays already associated with the database could “stifle hiring practices,” Emmert said.
Those opposed to the bill have some of the same concerns. Glen Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said the provision to run employee data through the federal database, called the Basic Employment Verification Pilot Program, is not realistic.
He and others in the business community have argued that the database was not designed to handle a sudden spike of Arizona employers that would have to use the system should the bill become law.
“Until the federal government fixes the system and establishes a bulletproof verification system, it will be difficult to enforce an employer sanction regime,” Hamer said.
However, he worries the East Valley chamber’s actions could add momentum to the sanctions bill. The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday along partisan lines.
Meanwhile, Pearce said the federal database is a “wonderful system,” which takes no more than three days for background checks in most cases.
“You would not even come close to maxing out the system,” he said. “It’s virtually 100 percent.”
Some state lawmakers and business leaders have said in the past that they would rather hammer out a bill at the Legislature rather than let voters decide. Taking the issue to the voters has put more pressure on lawmakers to get something done this year.
Since the bill was introduced earlier this year, lawmakers have made several changes that East Valley business leaders said made it easier to support.
However, Deaton said he would like lawmakers to reduce some of the fines and penalties for those caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Rick Kidder, president and CEO of the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was not surprised at the East Valley alliance’s support of the bill.
His board would be inclined to support employee sanctions as long as there is a system in place that makes it “easy and inexpensive” for businesses to comply, he said.
He disagrees with Pearce’s ballot initiative. It stipulates that anyone caught “knowingly” hiring illegal immigrants will have all of their business licenses permanently revoked by the state after the first offense.
“In the political world, if you start dealing with absolutes, there is a good chance you haven’t done your homework and you’re dealing with a political ideology instead of a practical method of operating,” he said.
— Tribune writer Sarah N. Lynch contributed to this report.