Arizona’s newly enacted immigration law, which was meant to stem human trafficking and drug-related border violence, could have long-term consequences for the state’s flagging construction industry, in which employment is down 20% from a year ago.

Construction employers worry they will be held responsible if workers are found to be undocumented.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Construction employers worry they will be held responsible if workers are found to be undocumented.

On April 23, Republican Gov. Janice K. Brewer signed into law Senate Bill 1070, which allows police to detain individuals under “reasonable suspicion” of being an illegal alien. Failure to prove citizenship may result in arrest and a $500 fine. The law has sparked nationwide protests and heated civil-rights debates as well as at least three federal lawsuits.

Safety is an overwhelming concern in Arizona, where border skirmishes claim innocent lives. Just a week after Brewer signed the bill into law, five AK-47-toting, undocumented drug runners shot 53-year-old Pinal County Deputy Sheriff Louie Puroll during his routine patrol south of Casa Grande.

Construction contractors share the general concern about crime. “Drug and human trafficking co-finance each other, [and] they’re not shy about killing,” says Mark Minter, director of the Arizona Builders’ Alliance, which represents Arizona chapters of the Associated Builders & Contractors and the building chapter of the Associated General Contractors. “There were places along the border where you could go hiking or camping 20 years ago. You would be crazy to go there now,” he adds.

Kidnap Capital

There are other crime worries. In the U.S., Phoenix ranks first in annual kidnappings, which are mostly the result of the rampant human, weapons and drug trafficking between Mexico and Arizona.

As of 2007, one out of four Arizona Hispanics worked in the construction industry. Will they leave the state?

“There are contractors who are concerned about future availability of labor,” says Richard B. Usher, government relations chairman for the American Subcontractors Association of Arizona. “Our official position is that the federal government should enforce immigration laws and control the border, not foist it upon the states.”

The potential fallout includes legal trouble. One industry concern is “vicarious liability,” which could be assigned to a project owner or general contractor who unknowingly hires an undocumented worker through a subcontractor or supplier. The consequences could be both legal and financial.

“OSHA assigns vicarious liability to a jobsite,” Minter says. “So, it’s not unreasonable to think … the same theory could be applied to another law.”

There are concerns the new law, which goes into effect on July 29, could diminish Arizona’s census tally and, as a result, reduce the state’s federal funding share over the next decade. Arizona employed an aggressive bilingual advertising campaign, geared to allay fears and encourage participation in the census.

In Washington, D.C., the Arizona immigration law has ignited a flurry of partisan responses on Capitol Hill. The law makes meaningful federal immigration reform unlikely in an election year, say some observers.

On April 29, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who criticized Arizona’s law as “draconian,” announced an immigration legislative framework that would require illegal aliens to register, pay taxes and stay out of trouble while simultaneously creating employer sanctions for violators. Although the Democratic proposal was stronger on border security than previous Democratic proposals, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.) responded by calling the plan poisonous for “more secure border and responsible, bipartisan reform of immigration laws.”

Arizona contractors feel federal inaction forced the state to act but worry the state’s new law will cause all kinds of costly trouble at a time when the economy already is stressed. What’s also regrettable, says Usher, is the plan could “instill fear within the Latino community.”