Arizona has rarely invoked its last tough immigration law

In Arizona’s Santa Cruz County, the cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, share more than a name.

“The two communities kind of melt together,” said George Silva, the county attorney, who grew up in Arizona’s Nogales.

So it’s no surprise to Silva that the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act -- at the time the first state law in the nation to prohibit businesses from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants -- hasn’t been a top priority for the county. Silva said he had received only a couple of inquiries about the law and his office had not prosecuted an employer.

As it turns out, Santa Cruz County is not alone.


Officials from 12 of the state’s 15 counties said last week that they had not taken legal action against any businesses for failure to comply with the law. Officials in two counties -- Apache and Coconino -- could not be reached for comment.

Proponents of Arizona’s tough laws against illegal immigrants say the lack of prosecutions is a sign of the law’s success in deterring border crossers. Critics of the measure, which went into effect in 2008, say the law has only pushed illegal immigrants deeper underground in the workforce.

Last week, Arizona advanced its reputation as the toughest state on illegal immigration when it passed a bill that requires police, if they suspect someone is in the country illegally, to determine the person’s immigration status.

The bill, SB1070, also allows citizens to sue local agencies that don’t enforce the law.


Before the newest anti-illegal-immigrant law was enacted, one county stood out in its effort to enforce the Legal Arizona Workers Act.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Atty. Andrew Thomas have boasted about their strict enforcement. After dozens of raids, complaints have been brought against three businesses. A sandwich shop was ordered to close for two days. A Phoenix water park was found to have violated the law, but it went out of business before the case was settled. A third case involving a furniture manufacturing company is still working its way through the court system.

But south in Nogales, where the economy relies heavily on the produce packing industry, Silva said other issues were more urgent than enforcing the workers act, such as “crimes where people are being hurt.”

County attorneys in other border areas, including Cochise County in southeastern Arizona, also say they haven’t had a single complaint.


“Cochise County is not a destination for illegal immigrants,” said Edward Rheinheimer, the county attorney.

No businesses have been sanctioned in Gila or Yuma counties, or in the second-largest metropolitan area, Pima County.

Arizona has the highest number of employers participating in E-Verify, a federal online system that verifies the status of new hires. The Arizona Legal Workers Act requires businesses to participate in the system. More than 30,000 employers are enrolled, almost double the number taking part in California, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“Businesses are complying with the law and going about their business,” said Glenn Hamer, chief executive of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


He said compliance was why there hadn’t been an “explosion” of cases in the last two years, but he also acknowledged that the federal online system had been found to be inaccurate.

A December 2009 report for the Department of Homeland Security found that 54% of unauthorized workers who submitted to E-Verify received erroneous work authorizations.

In Santa Cruz County, Silva said he didn’t think businesses were getting away with employing illegal immigrants. He said he would prosecute if a complaint were formally filed, and said a large contingent of Immigration and Customs officials and Border Patrol agents was assigned to the county.

“Here we have the feds doing their thing,” he said.


Silva said his staff focused more on drug problems spilling into the U.S. from Mexico.

“Immigration is not an issue because we see it day in and day out,” he said. “We have so many ties to the Mexican community that it’s just not an issue.”