Businesses that hire illegals could lose state contracts
Mike Sunnucks
The Business Journal
Businesses hiring illegal immigrants could lose state government contracts and state agencies are making sure they are also not directly employing undocumented workers.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has ordered state agencies to make sure they are not hiring illegal immigrants. Napolitano also told state contractors that if they are caught employing illegal immigrants or have other federal immigration law violations, they could lose state contract work.

The governor also is telling state agency directors to set up procedures for random checks of contractors employment records to make sure their workers are in the U.S. legally.

The Democratic governor issued those dictums in an executive order Oct. 20. It would be embarrassing for the state government and governor if government agencies and/or government contractors are caught employing illegally undocumented immigrants.

There are more than 500,000 illegal immigrants living in Arizona, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Napolitano's action does not go as far as employer sanctions favored by state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and other immigration hawks.

Pearce wants to deny business licenses and operating charters to companies caught hiring illegals.

"I am running legislation that requires and demands contractors who do business with the state, must verify and guarantee all of their workers are legal and all agencies must guarantee they are legally here to get any license at all," said Pearce. "This conduct is criminal."

Pearce and other conservative Republicans have been critical of Napolitano on the immigration front. The governor opposed a voter-approved 2004 measure that denies state welfare benefits to illegals and vetoed measures aimed at expanding that referendum earlier this year.

Illegal immigration and border controls are huge economic, political and security issues in Arizona. A number of key industries -- including agriculture, construction, hospitality and services -- rely heavily on undocumented labor, mostly from Mexico.

However, the porous Mexican border also makes Arizona a prime U.S. entry point for Mexican drug cartels, smugglers of all sorts and the illicit sex trade. Illegal immigration is expected to be a top issue in next year's elections.

"Immigration is clearly going to be a major issue in the governor's race. It is sure to continue to receive nationwide attention," said Gretchen Jacobs, a top lobbyist for the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

Business groups (including the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry) oppose Pearce's sanction efforts -- which could be on the 2006 ballot -- worrying small businesses will lose their licenses for paperwork errors or unintentional mistakes.

Pearce counters there are a number of scofflaw employers who hire illegals at cheap pay and that gives them an unfair and illegal advantage over companies that play by the rules.

But another top immigration hawk gave Napolitano some credit for her executive order.

Valley car dealer Rusty Childress, a top supporter of tighter border controls, said the governor's order signifies some positive movement to curtail illegal immigration.

"I think she is getting the idea, she may be starting to wake up to smell the coffee," said Childress, a conservative who has criticized Napolitano on other border matters.

In the executive order, Napolitano accused the federal government of not enforcing immigration laws and also said that most illegal immigrants coming into the state and U.S. are looking for jobs and a better life.

Hispanics make up a quarter of the state's population and are an increasingly key voting bloc.

The governor has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of the border situation.

Republican candidates for governor -- including Mary Peters, Don Goldwater and Jan Florez -- are making immigration and the Mexican border a top issue for next year's elections.