Monday, December 31, 2007

Arizona risks all with a nativist plunge

Starting with the new year, Arizona employers will be on the hook for "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants in a state with a growing economy and a squeaky-low unemployment rate. Businesses fingered for hiring workers who informally crossed the border in search of a better life -- and Maricopa County officials, among others, have promised mob-pleasing strict enforcement -- face the loss of their business licenses for ten days after a first offense, and permanently after a second offense. It's no wonder that businesses are nervous about the potential impact of the new law. So are illegal immigrants; they've begun an exodus from the state, heading for friendlier U.S. jurisdictions, or back home to Mexico.

That's a big problem, because illegals represent about 11.6% of the Arizona workforce, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That's a lot of workers leaving the state, and a lot of customers taking their shopping dollars along with them.

No wonder Barron's accuses the state of "strangling its own economy," further saying:

...threatening businesses with extinction for hiring people hungry for work may be the most self-defeating legislative enterprise since the Volstead Act, which enforced national Prohibition.

It will overwhelm or corrupt the officers who are supposed to enforce it. It will disrupt Arizona business, reduce the profits of its most lucrative industries, raise unemployment and lower economic output. It will enrich New Mexico and Nevada and the state of Sonora in Mexico, site of Arizona's outsourcing, at Arizona's expense.

That's the power of misguided democracy: Satisfy a vocal minority, and everybody gets it -- good and hard.

Businesses that bite the bullet, swallow the economic disruption and try to screen all of their new hires in accordance with the law face uncertain prospects. The law strongly pressures employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of job applicants. But the free federal service is a pilot program that has never been tested by heavy demand from employers. Even the pilot version of the program has shown an unsettling propensity for erroneously labeling workers ineligible for employment -- 4% of the time, according to a 2006 congressional report, and up to 10% of the time for naturalized citizens, according to a recent report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security by Maryland-based Westat.

That's a lot of people wrongly denied employment, all to keep brown folks from building houses, landscaping yards and pumping the economy along to a heady pace.

There's more at stake here than economic fallout, of course. The new employer sanctions law seems based on some very dangerous premises: that doing business and taking jobs are privileges to be doled out only at the pleasure of government bureaucrats. Do we really want this country to turn (more) into a place where earning a living and hanging out a shingle are favors to be gained only by going hat-in-hand to a government office and asking "mother may I"?

And do we really want the details of our employment status -- and whatever other data may accrue in the years to come -- to be centralized and easily accessible in a government database?

When Barron's editorial writers predict an "apocalypse," they're more right than they know. It's not just the health of one state's economy at risk, but a strong dose of economic and civil liberty sacrificed for the sake of pure bigotry.



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