Russell Pearce was far from home the day his son got shot. Minutes from the White House, the state legislator was preaching the Pearce gospel. "They're taking jobs away from Americans," he told a small audience at a prominent DC think tank. "Health care systems are failing. The education system has imploded. Eighty percent of the violent crimes in Phoenix are involving illegal aliens." Pearce speaks softly, and he has a sad-puppy look about him when he mentions the men and women he has devoted his life to pushing back behind the Mexican border. "You can't continue to pander and have pathetic policies that hurt America."
Moments later, a Brookings Institution staffer handed Pearce a note instructing him to call his wife LuAnne—"now." Pearce's son Sean, a sheriff's deputy in Arizona's Maricopa County, was being airlifted to a hospital with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. Plane delays and red lights slowed an excruciating trip to a crawl. LuAnne called back with an update. "You're not going to believe this," she said. "Sean was shot by an illegal alien.' "
Rep. Russell Pearce talks little about himself and much about state politics, but his personal life has an uncanny way of colliding with his political obsessions. Like his son, Pearce bears a wound from his days in law enforcement: 30 years ago a Latino gang member put a bullet in his right hand, leaving it permanently disfigured. In a state where most people—Latino or otherwise—are transplants, the Republican lawmaker can honestly say that he has been observing the transformation of Arizona since the day he was born. For decades, he has watched, horrified, as his native city spread like syrup over the pancake-colored desert. Arizona is now the second fastest growing state in the nation, and the Phoenix-Mesa metropolitan region, where Pearce was born, raised, and elected, is the fastest growing region in the state.
Sun-seeking natives drove most of that growth, but over the last decade Arizona has become a major corridor for unauthorized immigrants. In the mid-1990s, federal authorities took Vietnam-era landing mats and erected a steel wall between Tijuana and California. Border agents, once a rare sight, began to dot the more populated Texas and California borders. So those who aspired to work in America charted a course right through the middle, braving the Sonoran Desert in hopes of avoiding armed guards. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 10 percent of Arizona's work force in 2005 was undocumented, twice the national average.
Pearce aims to change that, one way or another. He has been a state legislator for only eight years, but he has used nearly every political position he has held, from deputy sheriff to director of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Division, to crack down on undocumented workers. He wants to end birthright citizenship, slash immigration quotas, and throw up more walls. He has proposed that officials at the state's Child Protective Services be required to root out undocumented children. The representative of a city named Mesa, Pearce co-authored an initiative to ban the use of Spanish in most official communications. Most of all, he thinks anyone who puts "profits above patriotism" ought to be kept from doing business in the state of Arizona. In the summer of 2007, Pearce finally got his wish.
In July of last year the Arizona legislature passed Pearce's Fair and Legal Employers Act, also known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, the most severe state-level anti-illegal immigration measure in the country. Under the bill, any company caught "knowingly" hiring someone not authorized to work could have its business license suspended. A second offense would bring permanent revocation. All employers would be required to use E-Verify, a federal electronic verification that is voluntary in the other 49 states. (See "Get in Line!," page 38.)
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, had already vetoed "13 or 14" of his bills, so Pearce had a press release ready to go for when Napolitano rejected this one. But the veto never came. Napolitano called one of the provisions a "business death penalty," then signed anyway.
At a time of economic downturn, Pearce has volunteered the state for a radical experiment in state-level border control, an initiative emulated with varying degrees of success by state legislators in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, and elsewhere. On the national level, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) wants to force every American employer to check federal databases before hiring anyone. Shuler's bill is in limbo, and several state laws aimed at punishing employers of undocumented workers are tied up in the courts. But punishing employers polls well among the electorate, draws bipartisan support, and continues to tempt politicians in search of a movement.
Supporters of sanctions say they are the most effective way to keep undocumented workers from flooding the country; opponents say they will cripple legitimate businesses and force immigrants underground. No one really knows the full effect sanctions will have on an economy that has come to depend on Mexican builders, servers, janitors, nannies, and day laborers. Thanks to Russell Pearce, Arizona is about to find out.
Sheriff Joe and His Rival Ex-Deputy
Maria (her name, like those of other immigrants, has been changed for this story) is leaving Phoenix. It's not that she lacks papers. She is a permanent resident employed by the local school district, and she has lived in the U.S. for 17 years. But like many Latinos working legally, she has a close relative who is undocumented—her teenage son, Luis.
Last year, Luis witnessed a hit-and-run accident that left a Phoenix bicyclist on the side of the road. Maria says her son got out of the car, ran to the victim, and called the paramedics and police. When the police arrived at the scene, they asked for Luis' account of the accident. They then inquired into his immigration status and promptly arrested their witness. Luis was eventually released, but Maria resolved to go somewhere more welcoming—Utah perhaps, or Canada. She won't be leaving alone.
While it is difficult to know how many immigrants are packing up and moving on, Phoenix residents see evidence of a minor exodus. Apartment complexes that cater to low-income Latinos tell the local press that vacancies are up. Nancy Nicolosi—co-owner of Nicolosi & Fitch, which manages 3,000 apartments in Tucson—told the Arizona Star in January that the number of people disappearing with rent unpaid had jumped more than 300 percent during the previous year. A month later The New York Times reported that school districts in heavily Latino districts had seen sudden drops in enrollment, a sign that parents may be pulling their kids out of school and heading out of state.
In theory, the employer sanctions bill was meant to rid the state of illegal, not legal, immigrants. In practice, legal workers are the husbands, wives, parents, and children of the undocumented. As with a tumor surrounded by healthy tissue, it is impossible to excise the unauthorized without losing the productive, legal workers attached to them.
Sanctions aren't the only reason an immigrant in Arizona, with or without papers, might abandon his apartment, grab his kids, and find a new place to do business. In 2006 the state's economy was growing at a rate of 6.7 percent, double the national average. In 2007 growth slowed to 1.8 percent, and in 2008 it's expected to slow further as housing prices drop and once-plentiful construction jobs grow scarce. For her part, Maria is leaving neither because of the law nor because of the economy. She is simply tired of being harassed by a county that has turned its sheriff 's deputies into immigration informants.
It is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who unleashes Pearce's legislative efforts upon Arizona. Typically, local sheriff 's deputies would not be empowered to enforce immigration law, a responsibility specific to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but Arpaio has an agreement with the federal government allowing 160 of his 750 deputies to arrest and detain thousands of undocumented workers. When Pearce passes a sanctions law allowing investigation of businesses suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, Arpaio can show up and begin arresting amusement park employees by the dozen. When Arpaio needs more funding to enforce a state "human smuggling" law aimed at workers themselves, Pearce can arrange it. The sheriff says he has turned over 15,312 men and women to ICE so far.
Pearce and Arpaio may seem like natural allies, but this cozy arrangement follows more than a decade of personal strain between the two public servants. Arpaio has been talking about "illegals" for only a few years. He first became famous for his harsh treatment of prisoners in the mid-1990s when he dressed Maricopa County's inmates in cartoonish black and white striped uniforms, shackled female prisoners in chain gangs, forced male inmates to wear emasculating pink underwear, and fed his charges green bologna. When federal law required that he give each inmate more room but the county refused to grant funds for a new brick-and-mortar jail, Arpaio built an internationally notorious "tent city" with barbed wire and surplus army tents donated by the Pentagon. The sheriff was unworried by the prospect of exposing inmates to 115-degree desert afternoons; if the tents were good enough for U.S. soldiers, he figured, they were good enough for convicts. Today, at the entrance of the still-standing jail, images of American soldiers in Iraq hang over a warning not to complain.
When he first ran for sheriff in 1992, Arpaio vowed not to serve more than four years. Russell Pearce, a decorated former officer with ambitions to succeed Arpaio, agreed to be his chief deputy for a single term; he says he was promised a fast track to the top slot. But Arpaio liked playing chief, and references to his one-term pledge dropped off considerably during his first year in office. Pearce eventually left in 1993, disappointed but unwilling to wait for the immensely popular Arpaio to tire of the job.
According to Pearce, Arpaio's attention-grabbing tent city jail was not the sheriff 's idea but his. It was Pearce who thought to use military surplus left over from Operation Desert Storm, Pearce who "refused to hang a 'no vacancy' sign on the county jail," Pearce who saved taxpayers millions while keeping them safe. "Sheriff Arpaio ran to be a one-term sheriff, and he changed his mind," he recalls. "In fact, I have an affidavit in my safe where he committed to [serve] one term, and so that was part of the deal, but you know what? I'm not an ego-driven guy, and like I told him, it doesn't matter to me."
The sheriff 's star continued to rise throughout the '90s, fueled not a little by his universally acknowledged yen for publicity. He espoused a militarized version of community policing, greatly expanding an existing network of volunteer posse members and acquiring an army tank to ride during Phoenix parades. He was engaged and unsubtle. But unlike Pearce, Arpaio was not a born border warrior, and he did not become one until public anti-immigration sentiment in the state reached a peak late in 2005.
After leaving the sheriff 's office, Pearce bounced around for a while, serving as the director of the Motor Vehicle Division until Republican Gov. Jane Hull canned him. One of the agency's employees had erased a driving under the influence charge from a woman's records as a political favor, and Pearce took the fall. (His then-20-year-old son Justin also left the division in disgrace, after printing state-issued IDs for his underage friends.) In 2000, Pearce was elected as state representative of Mesa, a conservative, Mormonfounded city east of Phoenix, on a platform of low taxes, strong values, and closed borders.
Four years in, thanks in part to term limits, Pearce managed to position himself as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, giving him crucial leverage over other legislators. He wasn't a publicity hound like Arpaio, but he would gladly stop and talk to anyone about immigration. And Arizona residents were ready to talk. "Russell did what bright lawmakers do: found an issue, made it his own," says Howard Fischer, a Phoenix-based journalist who covers the state legislature for Capitol Media Services. "He built a popular base of support, and he has found a willing audience throughout most of the rest of the state, much the same as the sheriff has found an audience."
Tapping into frustration over crowding, crime, and identity theft, Pearce found resonance in his own district while convincing his state colleagues that their constituencies, too, demanded action on immigration. Public anger was rising, and Republicans who would rather have treated immigration as a federal responsibility found themselves sidelined as Pearce hammered away. In the Arizona Republic, moderates accused the party of running a "dictatorship" and blacklisting dissenters.
Pearce's first important anti-immigration trophies were Proposition 200, a 2004 voter initiative that forced residents to prove their citizenship before registering to vote, and Proposition 103, a 2006 measure establishing English as the official language of Arizona. Prop 200 passed with 56 percent of the vote, and Prop 103 with 74 percent. "There was a lot of dry wood ready to catch fire, and Pearce was a spark," says Rodolfo Espino, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. "Couple that with the failure of comprehensive immigration reform and a housing boom that created a tremendous need for workers."
The Fair and Legal Employment Act, which had faced stiffer opposition, was not, in the end, everything Pearce wanted. His initial proposal would have revoked business licenses on the first, not the second offense; anything less, he suggested at the time, would be "amnesty." But when the slightly less severe act finally passed, the man who had long languished under the shadow of "America's toughest sheriff" suddenly found himself on national news shows, talking up what he liked to call "the nation's toughest immigration law."
Employers or Enforcers?
Sheridan Bailey won't argue with that description. The sanctions law took effect on January 1, so the 64-year-old president of Ironco Enterprises, a steel fabrication firm in Phoenix, axed 30 percent of his work force just before Christmas of 2007. Most had families. One was an iron fitter who "could work circles around any other fitter" in the joint. Another had been in the United States his whole adult life. "He has been here since he was 5," says Bailey, with visible frustration. "He looks and talks—well, not exactly like me, but he's as American as anybody else."
To attract replacement talent, Bailey raised wages for some workers as much as 35 percent, but he says a labor shortage remains the greatest constraint on Ironco's growth. He tried forming a training program that recruited native-born Arizonans for the position of project manager, which pays $75,000 a year. "'Look,' we said, 'we'll train you to be welders and fitters; if you're sharp and hardworking, you can become a project manager,' " he recalls. "But none of those guys lasted more than 90 days. They couldn't show up on time. They couldn't park their car in the right place. They couldn't follow direction, so what we learned is you can't just go to recruit young people to do this kind of work."
Bailey turned to Alongside Ministries, an organization that helps ex-convicts find work. He tried U.S. Vets, an organization that helps ex-soldiers who are having trouble adjusting to civilian life. He asked a missionary friend for help recruiting refugees. "No matter what you raise the wages to," he says, "there aren't enough warm bodies." Construction delays are costly, so contractors can't take jobs if they aren't sure they'll have an adequate work force. Unable to find enough capable laborers stateside, Bailey eventually tried outsourcing metalwork—to Mexico.
In 2000, when the last U.S. Census was taken, 20 percent of Arizona workers in construction-related trades were non citizens. While an estimated one in 10 employees in the state are undocumented, the percentage in residential construction, tourism, food service, and commercial construction is much bigger, so that's where the sanctions law is hitting hardest. Mike Sutter, who owns a masonry business in El Mirage, says he "easily" could have doubled his business last year had he not faced a shortage of ready workers. "I can't tell you how many high school career days I have been to," says Sutter. "We offer kids $13 an hour with no experience. That's a good wage. But it's hot out here."
Employer sanctions have been a boon to at least two occupations: employment law and human resource management. Jason LeVecke, co-owner of 60 Carl's Jr. restaurants in Arizona, has hired two national law firms to audit each of his 1-9 forms, the documentation required to verify an employee's identity. Both Bailey and Sutter used to employ part-time H.R. people; now the position is full time, though Sutter comments that the "girls in H.R. are scared to death they're going to make a mistake and get fired or go to jail."
None of Sutter's office employees are currently doing time in Arpaio's tent city, but it's no easy task to decide which Latinos are eligible to work in Arizona. Employers who too zealously investigate potential hires will violate laws meant to protect privacy and guard against discrimination. Employment attorney Julie Pace, who represents businesses attempting to overturn Pearce's law, says the legal situation is so complicated that most immigration lawyers do not understand it. She represents employers who are being simultaneously charged by ICE for having hired undocumented workers and by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for racial profiling in an effort to avoid hiring undocumented workers. Going over and above the demands of any one law can mean fines, a license suspension, and, increasingly, asset seizure.
An uncertain business climate creates its own problems, apart from any actual enforcement. LeVecke, the Carl's Jr. franchisee, is part of a group of business owners who have challenged the law in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. He says he'd like to expand in his native Arizona but doesn't want to risk his business license on the chance that an irresponsible manager will make a bad hire. "Businesses through-out the country have heard that Arizona is a place where you can lose your license," he says. "Even if we undo the law, the reputational damage is going to take 10 years to turn around."
The Scars of Enforcement
Pearce has a historical analogy handy for those who might worry about his law's economic impact. "The arguments they're using—it's kind of interesting—are the same arguments that were used when we tried to abolish the horrific, barbaric practice of slavery," he says. "Who'll bring in the crops?" The comparison casts Pearce as an abolitionist, but he prefers to portray himself as a soldier standing alone against invasion.
As a child, Pearce says, he and his 12 brothers and sisters ran around the streets of Mesa barefoot, too poor to buy shoes and too oblivious to know they were poor. He describes his childhood in sharply Manichean language: His mother was an "angel," his father an unreliable drunk who stole from saintly Mom. His mother, a bank teller, kept house from before her children awoke until after they'd gone to sleep; his father dallied as a mechanic "when he worked at all."
The family lived in central Mesa throughout his childhood, though the elder Pearce's inability to hold a steady job kept them from settling into any one residence for very long. "It kind of offended him that every month somebody'd want rent," the legislator says dryly, not without affection. "We moved a lot." They didn't move far; by Pearce's count, they lived in seven houses on one street alone.
It's impossible to know to what extent Pearce's childhood affected his politics and to what extent his politics affected the way he tells the story of his childhood. But as a legislator, Pearce has been almost fanatical about the right to keep what you earn. In 2007 the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers named him a "hero" for his near-perfect voting record as a fiscal conservative. The immigration issue, as he sees it, is in the same vein; he is convinced that undocumented workers are leeching off hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Arizonans. "The Mexican government," he says in a typical crowd pleaser, "is in their 12th edition of their little book of how to break into America and get free stuff." He carries at his fingertips numerous factoids to this effect, most of them culled from papers by the conservative Heritage Foundation and studies commissioned by the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Pearce signed up with the Maricopa County Sheriff 's Office in the early 1970s. He took naturally to law enforcement and the charge of upholding respect for rightful authority. Eight years on the job, he walked up to a Tastee Freez and confronted a teenager who happened to have a Maricopa County Sheriff 's Deputy patch on the seat of his pants. Pearce ordered the adolescent, whom he remembers being named Armando, to remove it; Armando said he couldn't. So Pearce "helped him take it off with one good rip." Standing with the offending patch in his hand, Pearce noticed six Latino adolescents—he calls them "little gangbangers"—at an adjacent park.
The kids were carrying paper bags, which Pearce figured weren't covering bottles of Pepsi. He asked for their names and addresses, and when they failed to cooperate, he pulled out his handcuffs and shoved one against his patrol car. Another responded by unleashing his Doberman on the deputy. Still restraining the kid that he was handcuffing, Pearce whacked the dog with his flashlight. The dog yelped, a shotgun went off, and Pearce felt a bullet pierce his chest and lodge into his back.
"My first reaction was, these guys aren't going to get away with this," Pearce says. He placed a hand on the wound and tried to chase them down, but the only kid he snagged was Armando—a witness who was familiar with the shooter. Shoving him into the cop car, Pearce noticed blood and demanded to know where the kid was hurt. Armando kept insisting that he wasn't hurt at all. Pearce realized that the blood was his own, and that he'd just lost his right ring finger.
No one has ever accused Russell Pearce of insufficient zeal in rooting out lawbreakers. Even today, from his perch in the statehouse, Pearce prefers to view himself as an enforcer of laws rather than a maker of them. "We're not trying to create new laws," he explains. "We're just trying to put into place a process that ensures the rule of law, that people follow the law and do what's right."
Like fellow Arizonan John McCain, a man he has called "treasonous" for his support of comprehensive immigration reform, Russell Pearce bears the physical scars of total commitment to a creed. But while his obsession with law and order cost him a finger, his son's shooting probably says more about what's it like to be Arizona's most notorious anti-immigrant legislator. Once again Pearce's personal and political lives collided in a bizarre public spectacle, and once again he found himself thrown into an awkward partnership with Joe Arpaio.
On November 22, 2004, three weeks after Arpaio's fourth re-election, more than 300 sheriff 's officers were transferred to new positions. As the East Valley Tribune's Mark Flatten later reported, the transfers followed a curious pattern. According to the Mesa paper, almost no one who had openly supported or contributed to the campaign of Arpaio's challenger was promoted. Many were transferred to less desirable jobs—from patrol to property room, or detective to patrol.
The transfers extended to the SWAT team that employed Sean Pearce, an elite unit manned by experienced deputies. "When you look at a lot of these transfers," former SWAT team member Keith Frakes told the Tribune, "they were punitive in nature. I think they kind of lumped the whole SWAT team into that a little bit."
In place of experienced team members, Arpaio assigned to the SWAT team Joel Fox and Dave Trombi as commander and lieutenant, respectively. Fox had served as a part-time SWAT member years before, and Trombi had no SWAT experience to speak of.
In December 2004, Sean Pearce and other members of the team broke down the door of a Mesa mobile home and stormed into the trailer to serve a warrant. They were greeted with gunfire. From behind a Christmas tree, 22-year-old Jorge Luis Guerra Vargas hit Sean in the abdomen and deputy Lew Argetsinger in the hand. Chaos ensued. Fox called in the wrong emergency code, gave dispatchers the wrong address, and failed to tell paramedics that Pearce and Argetsinger had been shot. "We [were] left bleeding in the street for way longer than we should have been," Argetsinger later told the Tribune.
Arpaio came to visit Sean in the hospital, where his mother LuAnne was waiting by his side. She reportedly refused to shake the sheriff 's hand, a hostility that would be echoed by her recovering son. Sean recovered fully from the wound but was publicly critical of the department transfers, telling local journalists that it was a mistake to rob the team of experienced men. A day after he and Argetsinger spoke to the Tribune, they were both placed under internal investigation, ostensibly to determine whether they had followed procedure during the raid. As officers under investigation, they were prohibited from talking to the press.
So Sean's wife talked instead. She told the Tribune that her husband was being "treated like a criminal by the sheriff 's office" and was having a hard time adjusting to his new desk job. Sean filed a complaint with the Industrial Commission of Arizona accusing the sheriff 's office of creating an unsafe work environment.
Rep. Pearce was notably quiet. Never one to seek out the media, he did not do so now. He continues to wave away questions about whether the country sheriff placed his son in mortal danger. Arpaio would soon be taking a more public stance on immigration, and the men are publicly supportive of one another. "Shame on folks who can't set aside their difference where there are big issues like immigration on the table," Pearce told the Tribune in 2007. "The No. 1 issue is immigration, and [Arpaio] has been in front on that." As late as April 2005, Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that "illegal immigration is not a serious crime," but he was about to have a change of heart. Today "Illegal immigration stats" appear prominently on the Maricopa County Sheriff 's Office website, right under a picture of Sheriff Joe's tank.
Turn Off the Lights
Pearce is not far off when he claims to be simply an enforcer of a regime that preceded him. Undocumented immigrants are here illegally, and the businesses that hire them do so unlawfully. The sanctions bill simply increases existing penalties for activities that have long been illegal. And yet for immigrants and small business owners, the law represents a violent break with the existing consensus, a ripping apart of a vital, delicate network of mutual cooperation.
Phoenix, which sits in the center of the state, has always had a fluid relationship with cities to its south. John "Jack" Swilling, who founded the town site in the 1860s, was married to Trinidad Escalante, a native of the Sonoran state of Mexico. A full half-century passed before Arizona became a state, and the peripheral, free-wheeling territory reflected its boundary status: In 1870, according to the first federal census that measured Arizona territory, the city was about half Mexican. Today Phoenix maintains tight economic and familial ties with Sonora and the wealthier Mexican state of Chihuahua; Mexican Phoenicians are very likely to have family in one of these places, and the flow of people to and from rises and falls with Arizona's economy.
When government intervenes, that flow is disrupted and distorted. The deserts separating Arizona and Mexico are not an especially inviting place to cross the border, but federal authorities drove immigrants into the state by raising the number of border patrol agents to the east and west. By increasing the costs associated with crossing, the federal government encouraged the rise of paid smugglers, known as coyotes, and the violence that came with their ascendance.
The United States allots exactly 10,000 visas a year to low-skilled workers in occupations that require less than two years of training or experience and who want to stay permanently. Beyond that, there is no legal way for a low-skilled foreign laborer without naturalized American family members to seek permanent residence in the United States. There is no line in which to wait. (See "What Part of Legal Immigration Don't You Understand?," page 32.) Temporary visas for low-skilled nonagricultural workers, known as H2Bs, are capped at 66,000 a year. Yet Arizona alone, by Pew's estimates, employed between 260,000 and 292,500 undocumented workers in 2005. Many of them have been working in Arizona for years and have become an integral part of the economy as it functioned until January 2008. Employers looked the other away, paid occasional fines when ICE came knocking, and largely saw such penalties as a cost of doing business.
Americans moving from California and the Midwest require men to build their new homes and landscapers to maintain them. They create new demand for servers and busboys, janitors, and nannies. The majority of the low-skill foreign workers they attract have no avenue through which to seek legal documentation, but they require the same social services as native-born Americans: public schools, law enforcement, and roads. Deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented low-skill workers would save Arizona taxpayers on emergency room care, but would likely raise prices and slow economic growth. "You have to look at a budget comprehensively," says Jason LeVecke. "I could look at the costs of the electricity used to run my business and say, 'Gosh, it's gotten really expensive. If I just turned it off, we'd save a lot of money.' "
Scholars have long attempted to quantify the costs and benefits that come with undocumented immigrants. Workers without status, in addition to using schools and emergency rooms, pay sales, excise, and property taxes (sometimes indirectly, through rent). A 2007 study by University of Arizona researchers found that noncitizens, most of whom are undocumented in the Copper State, cost Arizona $140 million a year in health care and $89 million in law enforcement. The price of educating every student classified as an "English language learner," which includes some citizens, was another $540 million. All told, the study said illegal immigrants are costing the state about $1.4 billion a year. But the economic activity they generate provides $1.5 billion in tax revenues, yielding a net benefit to the public treasury, the study concluded.
Arizona's Coming Ghost Towns
Not everyone accepts those findings. Also in 2007, a study from the Congressional Budget Office found that "the tax revenues that unauthorized immigrants generate for the state and local governments do not offset the total cost of services provided to these immigrants" (italics added). The study concluded that undocumented immigrants had a "most likely modest," but decidedly negative, impact on state coffers.
How much do state-level budgets tell us about the impact of immigration on the economy? According to the Harvard economist Gerald Jaynes, not much. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration in 2007, Jaynes deemed "analyses that purport to measure the benefits of immigration by comparing taxes paid by immigrants to the cost of public services they consume" to be "egregiously incompetent and misleading." There is more to wealth creation than tax receipts; noncitizen immigrants are woven into Arizona's economic life, responsible for 8 percent of the state's economic output. They lower the costs of new housing, tourism, and food service. In 2007, before the employer sanctions law took effect, University of Arizona researchers estimated that a 15 percent reduction in immigrants in the construction sector would result in a loss of 56,000 fulltime jobs (for both citizens and noncitizens) and $6.6 billion in output. A 10 percent reduction in immigrants in the manufacturing work force would result in the loss of 12,000 full-time jobs and $3.8 billion in output. When immigrants leave, they take jobs with them.
As the threat of national employer sanctions looms, policy makers will look to Arizona to see how well an economy can adapt to an overnight loss of workers. Right now, good data are hard to come by. The state has seen a decline in home prices sharper than most, but it is difficult to assign responsibility to Pearce's legislation. "Clearly there is an effect," says Arizona-based economist Elliot Pollack, "but we do not yet know how to measure it. My expectation is that when the economy does come back, it will be difficult getting construction workers, and prices will be higher than they otherwise would have been for labor." Masked by a weak economy, the effects of Pearce's law may reveal themselves when the market picks up again and employers are once again attempting to hire in droves.
Researchers at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University are working on a two-year study that will attempt to quantify the economic impact of the nation's most punitive employer sanctions law. But it is highly unlikely that even the most damning results will deter Russell Pearce. By his own logic, entrepreneurs ought to be hurting; every going-out-of-business sale is just more evidence that Arizona is overcoming its addiction to cheap, illegal migrant labor. "Businesses are closing," he proudly told a correspondent from NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in June. He's forcing Arizona to quit cold turkey, and not every mom-and-pop operation will survive the painful withdrawal.
"Just like Disneyland or any other theme park learned a long time ago," Pearce likes to say, "if you want the crowd to go home, you've got to shut down the rides, turn off the lights."
Jason LeVecke of Carl's Jr. is not impressed. "I prefer not to think of my business as a ride," he says. "And I prefer not to turn it off." LeVecke won't get to decide whether his or any business survives; voters will. Pearce is running for state Senate this year, and he is being challenged by another conservative Republican Mormon who wants to roll back Pearce's sanctions before more immigrants flee and more businesses close down. Come November, Arizonans will have to decide whether they like the looks of their new state—lights dim, park closed, neighbors well out of sight.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.