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Earth Notes

New law has employers and undocumented workers worried

By Laurel Morales

Sedona, AZ – Sedona is a booming resort town that relies heavily on undocumented workers. One of those workers is Juan, who didn't want to use his last name. He sits in the family room of his double wide that overlooks the famous red rocks, while his wife cooks dinner. (AMBY: kitchen sounds) He's a restaurant manager in Sedona. He moved to the United States illegally when he was 15.

JUAN: Where we come from we don't have the same opportunities to survive. They don't have jobs where we can go work. I mean family of four you'll be making let's say a week a hundred dollars. I'm not dependent on the government I'm doing it myself. She works I work and that's all we want to do is just work.

Juan and his wife have two sons. They want to give them better opportunities than what they had in Mexico.

But this new law may have a big impact on them.

JUAN: I think it's devastating and if I leave then I will have nothing anywhere else. I will have to start from the bottom again.

Juan has no plans of moving but he knows some people who are considering moving to Las Vegas or somewhere without such scrutiny. He says the law is especially unfair for people like him who work hard and pay taxes.

Since Juan moved to the States 17 years ago he says he's done everything from washing dishes to putting up drywall. He says U-S citizens aren't willing to do that type of work.

Come January first we'll find out if that's the case. That's what Governor Napolitano stressed in a recent interview on NPR.

NAPOLITANO: I think the business community wanted to have their cake and eat it too in the sense of we do have employers some in this state and other states who go out and use this illegal immigrant market to keep wages low and not to have to compete for workers.

AMBY: chatter traffic

A group of Sedona employers recently met to discuss the new law and what it might mean for them and their economy. Mary Garland is co-owner of Garlands Lodge in Oak Creek Canyon.

GARLAND: I think there's significant concern the economy of Sedona would be drastically affected. I think it could cause a recession. I think people have no idea of the extent to which this could impact our town and our region.

Proponents of the law say it will force employers to pay higher wages that will attract citizens. But Garland says she and other businesses already pay significantly more than minimum wage.

GARLAND: All of the employers with whom we've had a conversation in Sedona agree that we're short on labor. We have to therefore pay a premium wage to get good workers... Many of us do pay for health care coverage. So they're not draining the system as so many people believe.

Garland says all of the employers she knows report their workers' wages and pay into the federal and state tax system.

A representative of Sedona's Licensed Contractors Association, who didn't want to use his name, says he knows of a handful of homebuilders who pay under the table.

WETZEL: There are no people in this area who will answer calls for employment other than the immigrants who are willing to do the back breaking work necessary.

He says the people who work for him provide the identification required to work legally. Whether or not those documents are false, he doesn't know. The new law will require him and other employers to use a federal database to check workers' status.

AMBY: Fade out traffic.

Jean Richmond Bowman is the spokeswoman for the Northern Arizona Building Association. She says this law could slow things down for the fastest growing state in the country.

BOWMAN: There is a projected shortfall in the labor workforce for construction of like 40,000 workers over the next 10 years. There's no way that can be filled locally or by US citizens without some kind of a guest worker program.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has also weighed in on the issue saying they're extremely disappointed. Spokesman Mac Magruder owns seven McDonalds restaurants in Arizona.

MAGRUDER: It comes down to a racial issue because most of the people we're talking about our brothers and sisters down south are hard working wonderful people. They came here to look for a better life and all we did with not enforcing our laws is give a wink and a nod and trap these people.

Like most business owners Magruder says he doesn't hire undocumented workers. But he still believes the law would be detrimental to the state's economy. Two business groups have already taken it to court.

And that's what worries Representative Russell Pearce, who sponsored the bill.

PEARCE: They're going to sue. They're going to do this. They're working on legislators to weaken the bill. I mean, they leave me no choice but to at least keep a presence out there as we go forward until we put these things to bed.

Opponents of the law say it violates the U-S Constitution. No date has been set for a court hearing.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.