Gov. Janet Napolitano on Monday signed one of the toughest illegal immigration bills in the country despite major concerns it could cripple life-saving emergency services, damage the state’s economy and open the door for racial profiling.
Under the new law, businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants would face suspension or revocation of their license to operate in Arizona.
In a letter sent to state lawmakers, Napolitano said she would be willing to hold a special legislative session later this year to fix the problems she sees with the law, which will take effect Jan. 1.
“Immigration is a federal responsibility, but I signed (House Bill) 2779 because it is now abundantly clear that Congress finds itself incapable of coping with the comprehensive immigration reforms our country needs. I signed it, too, out of the realization that the flow of illegal immigration into our state is due to the constant demand of some employers for cheap, undocumented labor,” she wrote in the letter.
The Fair and Legal Employment Act was one of 34 bills signed or vetoed Monday by the governor. Other measures signed by the governor included cracking down on what many lawmakers see as a growing street-gang problem, as well as two other bills dealing with illegal immigration.
One of the measures would deny illegal immigrants access to public services such as child-care and education. The other measure clarified the documents needed by law enforcement agencies and the state’s court systems to determine if someone accused of a crime is here legally.
Last year, voters approved a measure denying bail to illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes. But the so-called employer-sanctions bill was the most sweeping immigration bill Napolitano signed this year.
“There are a lot of things businesses have to intentionally not do before these sanction kick in,” said Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Barring any changes, all businesses will be required to check the legal status of new workers by running their names through a federal database.
On a first offense, businesses caught “knowingly” hiring undocumented workers could lose their license for up to 10 days. However, companies found “intentionally” hiring illegal immigrants would lose their license for a minimum of 10 days.
In addition, companies caught hiring illegal immigrants a second time within three to five years would permanently lose their business license and could no longer operate in Arizona.
However, the governor outlined a list of concerns that she wants addressed:
— The bill should protect critical infrastructure. Hospitals, nursing homes and power plants could be shut down for days because of a single wrongful employment decision.
— The revocation provision is overbroad, and could cause a business with multiple locations to face shutdown of its entire operation based on an infraction that occurred at only one location.
— The bill is under funded. Even though the Attorney General’s office must establish an entirely new database and must investigate complaints statewide, only $100,000 was appropriated for that purpose. Only $70,000 is appropriated to notify employers of the change in the law.
— There is no expressed provision protecting Arizona citizens or legal residents from discrimination under the terms of this bill.
— There is even a typo that has to be fixed. The bill cites the wrong portion of a federal law.
It didn’t take long for both supporters and opponents of the measure to speak out on what has been one of the hottest political issues in Arizona for the past several years.
Rep. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said he and a coalition of Hispanic and business groups were preparing to challenge the measure in federal court before it becomes law.
He said the coalition will argue that state government does not have the authority to regulate immigration. In addition, Gallardo said, he and others will continue to pressure Congress to tackle immigration.
“We are not going to let the inaction of the federal government ruin our economy,” he said. “You can bet that we’ll be in federal court on this one.”
Aldo Castañeda, the director of the Phoenix Immigration Center, said he thinks the governor has gotten “caught up in the wave” of anti-immigrant sentiments that have swept the nation and signed the bill because people are frustrated over the federal government’s failure to act.
“I think it is a surprise for the immigration community and their organizers that the governor signed such an anti-immigrant law,” he said in Spanish. “It’s a surprise because the immigrant community had confidence in her, and she had always vetoed anti-immigrant bills.”
In signing the employer-sanctions bills, Napolitano rejected pleas from most of the business community, which lobbied her to veto the measure since the bill was sent to her office nearly two weeks ago. They were worried that many Arizonans could lose their jobs if their bosses were caught hiring illegal immigrants.
“Arizona’s elected officials have caved to the political pressure of this emotional issue and deflected the burden for a national immigration problem onto the backs of businesses in Arizona,” said Ann Seiden, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance was one of the few exceptions within the business community that had supported the bill.
Tom Dorn, a spokesman for the EVCCA, said the bill isn’t perfect but better than the alternative. The group was concerned that a stricter version of the bill might have wound up on a future ballot.
Besides the potential of hurting businesses, Hispanic rights activists are worried the measure could pave the way for racial profiling.
“Look, if you’re an employer your going to scrutinize a Hispanic more closely than other employees and that’s racial profiling,” said Hector Yturralde, president of the We Are America Coalition.
Although the governor signed the measure, that doesn’t mean the drive to take a stricter version to the ballot is dead. Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who has led the charge at the Legislature and on the streets, said he’s willing to wait and give the law a chance to work.
But word that a special legislative session could be called to change and possibly weaken the law has the Mesa lawmaker watching closely.
“It’s a little hard to stop that drive entirely,” Pearce said of the effort to gather enough signatures to get the proposal on the 2008 ballot.
Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson, said he spoke with the governor Monday afternoon and would be willing to agree to a special session if any problems arise. The governor, Bee and House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, would have to agree to a special session. Weiers was unavailable for comment.