AZ urged to run its own entrant worker program
Capitol Media Services
Feb. 8, 2008

By Howard Fischer

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

PHOENIX — Facing a worker shortage, and unwilling to wait for a federal fix, some Southern Arizona lawmakers want the state to run its own temporary foreign worker program.

The proposal by Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox, would let companies that are suffering a "labor shortage" seek permission from the state Industrial Commission to bring in their own workers from Mexico.

It even would have the state issue identification cards to the foreigners authorized to work here.

"The federal government has not met the responsibility to come up with comprehensive immigration reform," Arzberger said.

"Our economy is hurting," she continued, adding many firms have found themselves without the workers they need. SB 1482 has a number of co-sponsors, including many of the legislators who represent the border area.

Senate President Tim Bee, although he did not sign on as a sponsor, said he supports the concept of a legal guest worker program.

Even if Arzberger gets her measure signed into law here, she needs congressional approval.

She said she already has asked Democrats who represent the state in Washington, where they hold the majority in both the House and Senate, to back her plan. But the two members of the delegation whose districts cover the border said they need more answers before they're willing to push her proposal.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said he understands the frustration of Arzberger and other Arizonans over the lack of action in Washington. But Grijalva said there are too many unanswered questions about "assured worker protections" at this point for him to back federal legislation.

A temporary worker should never replace an available U.S. resident, he said. And there must be assurances that guest workers "don't become a subclass that's exploited and paid less."

"That's what drives wages down," the congressman said. "Your $16-an-hour job goes down to $9."

Grijalva also said allowing states to enact their own temporary worker programs would remove the pressure he believes is necessary to per- suade Congress to enact a comprehensive solution.

C.J. Karamargin, press aide to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said the first-term lawmaker also wants "details" of how Arzberger's program would work. He questioned whether Congress can even give Arizona authority to admit foreign workers into the country.

In fact, one provision of SB 1482 would require federal border officials to let anyone with a state-issued temporary worker card enter the country, regardless of whether the person is otherwise qualified to cross the border.

Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, called the measure "a good-faith effort" to deal with the labor shortage in certain areas. But Friend also questioned how it would work.

For example, she said, how would the Industrial Commission determine a company is experiencing a true "labor shortage" as opposed to simply wanting to hire workers for less pay than legal U.S. residents are willing to accept.

Friend noted the legislation covers not just farmworkers but also industries where many workers are represented by unions, including restaurant employees, construction workers as well as those involved in landscaping.

"My concern is that certainly Arizona residents get first shot at the jobs," Friend said. "I've got concerns of how much of an effort an employer has to make to fill the jobs here, whether they're really reaching out and trying to fill the jobs here from all available sources," she explained.

But Arzberger said she doubts any of the labor shortage in Arizona is due simply to employers not wanting to pay higher wages.

"Not everybody wants to go work in the vegetable field. The same thing's true with the roofing industry and the landscaping industry and the contractors," she said. "How many people do we have that are willing to go out in 120 degrees and work?"

Getting the required congressional approval could prove difficult.

Arzberger's push comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposing reforms in the federal work visa process designed to expedite the ability of companies to bring in foreign workers. And Gov. Janet Napolitano, in a letter to Chao, has suggested having border states involved in that process.

Napolitano, in her letter to Chao, expressed some of the same frustration with Washington as has Arzberger.

"The public is outraged by the lack of federal action," the governor wrote. "They will not tolerate states doing nothing."

Napolitano said that is precisely what led to Arizona's new law to punish employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.

And while the governor said there needs to be "comprehensive immigration reform," she said there needs to be "a different interim approach to resolve the most exigent agricultural labor woes."