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Arizona’s slamming door

Times Staff Writer

As it has become the favorite entry point for undocumented migrants trying to sneak into the United States, Arizona has become a laboratory for whether a state can single-handedly combat illegal immigration.

In recent years it has barred illegal immigrants from receiving government services, from winning punitive damages in lawsuits and from posting bail for serious crimes. A new state law shuts down businesses that hire illegal workers. And the sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and three-fifths of the state’s population, dispatches his deputies and volunteer “posses” to search for illegal street vendors or immigrants being smuggled through the county.

“What I love about what Arizona is doing is we don’t have to rely on the federal government,” said state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican who has authored most of the toughest measures. “It has truly woken up the rest of America that states can fix that problem.”

The campaign has had an effect: Illegal immigrants complain it’s impossible to find good work and are leaving the state.

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It has also taken a toll on some U.S. citizens.

Juan Carlos Ochoa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in an upper-middle-class subdivision near Phoenix named Laguna Hills, can’t find a job because a government database classifies him as a possible illegal immigrant. Pauline Munoz, a 39-year-old mother of six who was born in Phoenix, has been afraid to leave her apartment since being held by sheriff’s deputies for 15 hours for a driving infraction -- an example of what she believes is racial profiling.

And businesses that cater to immigrants both legal and illegal report a huge drop in sales, increasing the drag on the state’s already troubled economy.

“There used to be so many people they would fight for parking out there,” said Omar Flores, 31, manager of La Mexicana market in western Phoenix. Now the grocery store is mostly empty.

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Economist Dawn McLaren of Arizona State University said that part of what’s pushing immigrants out is the collapse of the state’s housing-based economy. In the construction sector, which employs many immigrants, 10% of jobs have vanished over the last year as home prices have plunged.

The economic woes are magnified by the employer sanctions law, which has led some businesses to say they won’t expand in Arizona, McLaren said. “It exacerbates the downturn,” she said.

No one knows how many immigrants have left the state, and the most recent government figures show Arizona growing robustly -- as of July, Maricopa was the fastest-growing county in the nation.

But enough immigrants have left that the government of Sonora, the Mexican state bordering Arizona, has complained about how many people have arrived on its doorstep.

Pearce says the overall effect has been undeniably positive for Arizona. “Smaller class sizes, shorter emergency room waits,” he said. “Even if [illegal immigrants] are paying taxes -- and most of them aren’t -- the cost to taxpayers is huge.”

The biggest effect has come from the new employer sanctions law, which took effect in January.

The law is fairly straightforward.

Any business caught hiring illegal immigrants is put on probation. If it is caught doing the same thing again, the state revokes its business license.

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The only defense for an employer is if it used E-Verify, a federal pilot project to allow businesses to confirm the legality of their laborers.

The law did what it was supposed to with Jorge Hernandez, a 32-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico. He had been working in a Phoenix tire shop for years when in December his bosses told him they’d have to let him go because of the new law. Now he struggles to support his family by working as a day laborer and is thinking of leaving.

“I’ve been in Arizona for 11 years,” he said. “This is the worst one. For those years I worked every day. I had money, I had a car.”

Hernandez dreams of moving to New Mexico, where friends have told him the economy is stronger and sentiment against illegal immigrants weaker. “They don’t have E-Verify there,” he said in Spanish.

E-Verify has at least one significant flaw -- its treatment of naturalized U.S. citizens.

Between October 2006 and March 2007, about 3,200 foreign-born U.S. citizens were initially improperly disqualified from working by E-Verify. Their status was later corrected.

Because many did not register their citizenship with the Social Security Administration, they are often listed as possible illegal workers.

That’s what apparently happened to Ochoa, 47, who became a citizen in 2000. He quit his job as a car salesman at the end of last year and got hired by a local Dodge dealership in February. Days later, his new employers called him with bad news -- E-Verify classified him as a possible illegal immigrant. He only had a couple of days to convince Social Security that he wasn’t.

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He had lost his naturalization certificate, so Ochoa took his U.S. passport, Social Security card, driver’s license and Arizona voter identification card to the local Social Security office. He was told he’d have to request new papers from the Department of Homeland Security, which could take up to 10 months.

“I love this country, I’m happy in this country,” said Ochoa, a father of two, who escaped eviction this month only because a church group paid his rent. “The guy who made this law, I don’t know him. He’s started destroying a lot of families.”

Katherine Lotspeich, acting chief of the agency that runs E-Verify, said officials will introduce a number of changes, starting in May, to make it easier to fix the problems that Ochoa and other naturalized citizens have encountered.

“The last thing we want is to have people who are naturalized citizens deal with this cumbersome process” to get paperwork, Lotspeich said.

She added that Social Security should have accepted Ochoa’s passport as proof of citizenship.

Local law enforcement efforts, meanwhile, have drawn complaints about racial profiling.

For the last two years, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been testing how far a local law enforcement agency can go in combating illegal immigration. His deputies and trained volunteers have detained more than 1,000 illegal immigrants, many of whom were stopped for minor infractions and then asked about their immigration status. State legislators this month moved toward passing a law requiring all local police departments to start fighting illegal immigration.

“I believe that if you get tough,” Arpaio said, illegal immigrants “will disappear.”

Immigrant-rights groups and attorneys have complained that Arpaio’s attack on illegal immigrants leads to Latinos constantly being asked about their citizenship status. Some cite Munoz’s case as an example of perils to Arpaio’s approach.

Munoz was held for 15 hours after being stopped on a speeding violation in Phoenix in December. Deputies discovered she did not have a driver’s license. She was placed in a van with several arrested illegal immigrants, taken to jail and held for several hours of processing before a judge released her.

“It’s only because of the way you look,” Munoz said. “Even though I’m from here, I don’t feel safe to go out and do anything.”

Sheriff’s Capt. Paul Chagolla, a department spokesman, said Munoz was detained for driving without a license. She was kept with the illegal immigrants because “when we run an operation we don’t always have transport” for individual suspects, he said.

Arpaio said that there have been few specific complaints of profiling and that his deputies ask suspects about immigration status only when they see a possible crime committed.

He has no apologies for his tactics or their contribution to a flight of illegal immigrants from Arizona.

“The more who leave, the better,” he said. “They shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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