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Hispanics have been a part of our 48th state since the 1500s when Spain first explored and claimed the region from the Apaches, Hopi and numerous other desert tribes. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that the region began to attract its first immigrants from the United States in any significant numbers. Not long after, however, the U.S.–Mexican War placed much of the region north of the border and, by 1912, Arizona claimed statehood.

Now, a century later, the traffic pattern has reversed, and Mexican nationals try to cross through Arizona looking for work, or regrettably, hoping to sell narcotics or commit crimes. Arizona, the playground for aging Americans, is caught in the middle of an immigration war simply by virtue of location. And its citizens have taken that war into their own hands.

The work to curtail illegal immigration began in earnest in 2004, culminating in the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act, a state law that required mandatory identification for all workers. [The law was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.]

Unintended consequences

“It had a paralyzing provision that ensured a business’s ‘death’ if undocumented workers were hired by that business,” said Glen Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. Hamer, an attorney who has worked with business interests on both sides of the political aisle was speaking candidly at the ILAC conference in Tucson in August.

As popular as the Act was with the public, business interests, including many of the state’s chambers of commerce, opposed the measure, fearing that it would lead to significant lost business in all sectors of the economy. For taking that position and during the following election season, the Arizona Chamber received considerable pressure to withdraw its opposition, including death threats to its officers from some of the Act’s supporters, said Hamer.

Once the Act was passed in the election of 2007, the state chamber changed its priorities from opposing the Act to promoting national immigration reform. It also began an educational effort to teach businesses how to meet the requirements of electronic verification, commonly referred to as e-verify. During the following months, the chamber managed to help over 1,500 Arizona companies successfully meet that challenge.

Although admitting that the downturn in the national economy contributed to the dire state of Arizona businesses, Hamer believes the Act directly contributed to the devastating loss of jobs and business in both the state’s important tourism industry and with interstate competitive bids.

But Arizona citizens didn’t rest with the passage of the Legal Arizona Workers Act. Even with the Act, illegal crossings into Arizona continued to account for fifty percent of the nation’s illegal entries. The citizens of Arizona clearly believed that the federal government was unwilling or unable to address immigration reform and that if anybody was to protect the state from the problems associated with illegal entry across its southern border, it would have to be done at the ballot box in a state measure.

Arizona Senate Bill 1070

By 2010, Homer had a new bill to worry about. Acting at the behest of an angry electorate, the state’s senate had introduced a new solution to immigration reform. Initially, SB1070 included jail time for business owners who were guilty of hiring undocumented (or falsely documented) workers. The chambers managed to get that provision removed from the bill and elected to let the bill go through the senate without any further objection.

Allowing the bill’s passage without opposition turned out to be a mistake, but one Hamer and the other business leaders didn’t regret until after the state and national press brought the measure to the world media stage. Overnight, Arizona was condemned for its perceived antiforeign stance. Hamer explained that many, including Europeans and Asians, saw the Bill not as a reaction to illegal immigration from Mexico, but to an ethnocentric rejection of another nationality—including their own.
If the Legal Arizona Workers Act threatened to destablize business, SB1070 was an earthquake, said Hamer, who added that its passage brought an estimated $150 million loss to Arizona’s visitor and convention business and boycotts of interstate contracts–despite having most of the bill’s major provisions blocked by a federal judge.

The chamber, bruised from the fight that they believe has cost the state 150,000 to 200,000 jobs, including some 30,000 jobs held by legal Mexican employees, simply wants the state’s citizenry to drop their efforts to go it alone. The business interests want all effort to go toward achieving comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level—where they think it belongs to be ultimately effective.

“There’s going to be a small window after the next election,” said Hamer, referring to the November 2012 general election. “We’re going to need to do something on the federal level, and we need to reach agreement.” But, that agreement has to be quickly had, before the window is closed.

“Enough is enough,” Hamer said in frustration. “We must secure our borders: there will be no reform without this. We need a worker verification system. We need a workable guest worker program. And we need a way for contributing foreigners to be allowed to become legal.”

NOTE: This article is part of a series on immigration reform inspired by the ILAC conference in Tucson Arizona. Read the series in the November issue of Good Fruit Grower.