TAUNTS THREATS AS LAW NEARS
DISCRIMINATION RISING FOR HISPANICS, SOME SAY
Author: Daniel González
Estimated printed pages: 5
Businesses that employ Latino workers say they've been peppered with complaints of illegal hiring based on racial profiling ever since Gov. Napolitano signed the state's new employer-sanctions law in July.
The complaints are based on the assumption that employers are violating the sanctions law simply because their workers are Latino or speak Spanish.
The surge in racial profiling is particularly acute in the restaurant industry, where Hispanic employees with direct contact with customers also are being harassed with racial insults and verbal threats.
"We've had people say things as ugly as, 'We are going to deport you Mexicans' and stuff like that," said fast-food-restaurant owner Jason LeVecke, a vocal opponent of the employer-sanctions law.
While there is no official accounting of profiling complaints or incidents of harassment, immigration lawyers and business associations have heard from dozens of employers who have received complaints over the past three months. Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, already are being inundated with hundreds of reports of illegal hiring, even though the sanctions law threatening to put violators out of operation doesn't take effect until Jan. 1.
Legal experts say this is only the tip of the iceberg. Flaws in the law could lead to a flood of racial profiling once the employer-sanctions bill goes into effect, they say, creating huge legal headaches for employers and potential discrimination against Hispanic workers.
Napolitano realizes that there are flaws in the bill. "It does not have a mechanism to prevent discrimination," said Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer.
Napolitano has said she is willing to hold a special legislative session this fall to address that and several other problems with the bill.
But Barrett Marson, a spokesman for House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said the state already has an anti-discrimination law, so there is no need to add a similar provision to the sanctions bill.
Weiers is waiting for Napolitano to provide a proposal that addresses her concerns before he decides whether to hold a special session, Marson said.
Beginning Jan. 1, the law will require the more than 150,000 employers in Arizona to verify the employment eligibility of new workers through a federal database.
Employers caught knowingly or intentionally hiring unlawful workers face a 10-day license suspension for a first offense. After a second offense, they can lose their license.
State and county officials in charge of enforcing the law say they won't investigate complaints based solely on the appearance of the employee.
"We will be careful to review complaints to make sure they are legitimate," Attorney General Terry Goddard said through a spokeswoman, Andrea Esquer.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio signed an agreement this month to cooperate in enforcing the law. Enforcement of the law will be largely "complaint driven," they said. However, "we don't go knocking down a door just because someone says there are 10 illegals there," Arpaio said.
Arpaio said his office already is being flooded with calls from people complaining about employers hiring illegal workers. More than 500 of the 2,000 calls to a hotline created in July for reporting information about undocumented immigrants have been employment-related. Those calls have not been investigated because the law has not gone into effect, Arpaio said. But he doubted a large number were the result of racial profiling.
"I would almost guess that a lot of this info is coming from employees (with inside knowledge of illegal hiring), not based on ethnic background," Arpaio said. "We haven't had a lot of calls based on profiling."
Immigration lawyers, industry groups and employers themselves, however, say they have noticed an increase in hostility toward Hispanic workers since Napolitano signed the sanctions law.
LeVecke, who owns 56 Carl's Jr. and eight Pizza Patron restaurants in Arizona, said customers have accused Hispanic workers of being illegal more than 50 times since Napolitano signed the sanctions law.
His company also has fielded "hundreds" of complaints from customers upset about employees speaking in Spanish or with accents. LeVecke said he complies with laws against hiring illegal workers. Many of his employees are bilingual because many of his customers prefer to speak Spanish.
"There is a general lack of understanding that just because you don't speak English doesn't mean you are illegal," LeVecke said.
LeVecke attributes some of those complaints to a backlash over his participation in Wake Up Arizona!, a coalition opposed to the sanctions law.
But other restaurant owners also have seen an increase in race-based attacks, said Steve Chucri, president and chief executive of the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, one of several business groups suing to block the employer-sanctions law from taking effect on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional.
For example, "a bus boy speaking Spanish to another employee has prompted customers to raise the issue of their legal status to the manager," Chucri said. "They say things like, 'We think you are hiring people illegally, and we are going to call law enforcement.' "
Julie Pace, an immigration and employment lawyer, said 20 businesses, including several restaurants and construction companies, have called her in the last two months concerned about customers harassing legal Hispanic employees or accusing them of being illegal immigrants. She is one of the lawyers representing business groups that have filed suit against the law.
At one fast-food restaurant, Pace said, a customer picking up his food at a drive-through window used a racial epithet and cursed at the Hispanic cashier before saying, "Go back to your country."
At another restaurant, the owner received an e-mail from a customer accusing his Hispanic workers of being in the country illegally. The e-mail said, "I do NOT appreciate all these Mexicans who don't know English working at (the owner's restaurant). ... The shift charge who works there arond (sic) 11 a.m. is a mean-spirited woman who hires illegals who don't know English and get our order wrong each time. You need to get some Americans to work there."
Nancy-Jo Merritt, a Phoenix immigration lawyer not involved with the lawsuit against the employer-sanctions law, said she has received complaints about racial profiling and harassment against Hispanic workers from a nursery and a restaurant.
"It's like people are waiting out there. They are anxious to file complaints even before the law takes effect," Merritt said. "It's pretty ugly."
Pace has developed a list of guidelines to help employers respond to race-based complaints.
She has been distributing the guidelines at seminars taking place throughout the Valley to help employers prepare for the onset of the sanctions law.
The guidelines suggest that employers tell people the following: "The company will not knowingly employ individuals not authorized to work in the United States. At the same time, the company does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of citizenship or national origin."
Arizona State University law Professor Evelyn Cruz said companies can expect to see a deluge of complaints based on racial profiling once the law takes effect in January.
"The way the statute is written in Arizona, it invites a fishing expedition," said Cruz, director of the law college's immigration clinic. "For instance, someone can say, 'I see that company working across the street. They are speaking Spanish. I'm sure they must have someone that is illegal working there.' "
That is because the law doesn't require prosecutors to determine whether the complaint is valid before launching an investigation.
"Hopefully a reasonable (county) attorney will evaluate the complaint first, but the law doesn't require that," she said.
Unlike the federal employer-sanctions measure, the state version doesn't include an anti-discrimination provision, though people who knowingly file a frivolous or false complaint could be charged with a misdemeanor.
As a result, Cruz believes some employers could stop hiring Hispanics in favor of employees who "look American" to avoid complaints based on racial profiling that will be costly to defend.
Discriminatory hiring practices are against state and federal laws, Cruz said.
But for some employers, "the risk of losing money having to defend all these complaints and possibly losing their license outweighs fears of being discriminatory," she said.
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Edition: Final Chaser