Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Immigration measures move ahead at Capitol

by Mary Jo Pitzl / The Arizona Republic
Feb. 19, 2008 12:00 AM

Arizona's conflicted views on immigration surfaced Monday at the state Capitol, as a bill that would create a guest-worker program and another that would make it harder for day laborers to solicit work both won approval in their first outing.

It's the first round of immigration-related bills to be debated by lawmakers. A third measure, which would add illegal immigrants to the list of groups prohibited from carrying a gun in Arizona, died on a tie vote that broke along party lines.

For the second year in a row, Rep. John Kavanagh is pushing a bill that would allow police to cite people for criminal trespass if they are found to be actively soliciting work and disrupting traffic to do so.

It's an attempt to break up the huddles of day laborers who seek work by standing on sidewalks at busy intersections. The practice has been typified by last year's standoffs in front of Pruitts Furniture Store in Phoenix, as people seeking day-labor jobs blocked the entrances to the business and spurred counterprotests.

Kavanagh said House Bill 2412 would give police the authority to ticket people who disrupt traffic, such as by waving or gesturing for drivers to pull over and hire them. Current law, he said, only allows citations if a person is found to have obstructed traffic.

"It's basically a traffic-safety bill," Kavanagh told members of the House Homeland Security and Property Rights Committee. "It's painted as an illegal-immigration bill, because many day laborers are illegal."

Under his bill, people who are standing in a public street or highway, or next to one, and actively looking for work could be cited with a Class 1 misdemeanor. The bill defines soliciting work as "verbal or nonverbal communication by a gesture or a nod."

The Rev. Saul Montiel of the United Methodist Church urged committee members to reject the bill, calling it an attack on the immigrant community.

"Are you trying to destroy the economy of Arizona?" he asked, noting that many of the people seeking labor today will be the replacement force for retiring baby boomers.

Kavanagh said he worked on the bill with Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. It's their second run at legislation to try to curb day laborers. A similar bill passed the Legislature last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Janet Napolitano.

On Monday, the bill was approved on a 5-3 committee vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

While that bill was winning approval, a proposal to create a pilot Arizona guest-worker program was being discussed by another legislative panel.

The Arizona Temporary Workers Program, or House Bill 2791, drew heavy support from Arizona's business community, whose members said they need the labor pool that Mexican guest workers could provide.

"There are gaps in our labor force," said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

"There are certain areas where if we don't get much-need workers into our country, we will see business leave our state and our country."

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would allow Arizona employers to recruit temporary workers, from Mexico only, after demonstrating that there is a shortage of local labor to fill jobs.

The bill outlines a process, to be run through the state's Industrial Commission, that would regulate the hiring of temporary workers.

Provisions include a criminal background check of the applicant and a two-year limit on a temporary-worker ID, although the time could be extended. Workers would be drawn only from Mexico and would be authorized to travel between Mexico and Arizona, but not other states.

Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford and a sponsor of the legislation along with Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox, tried to keep the hearing civil. He said he had received numerous e-mails protesting the bill and said the racist tone he detected in many of them would not be tolerated in public comments.

Ron Seel, who opposed the bill, said that a temporary-worker program would depress wages for native-born workers. And, he said, the bill would open the door to amnesty, a charge that committee members rejected.

House Majority Whip John McComish said the bill does not provide a way for a worker to become a U.S. citizen. McComish, R-Phoenix, said the guest-worker proposal is a fitting byproduct of Arizona's policy "laboratory," which last year produced the strictest employer-sanctions law in the U.S.

The bill passed on a 6-0 vote, with Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix, voting "present."

The guest-worker program would need the blessing of Congress before it could take effect, assuming HB2791 succeeds in the Legislature.

A companion measure, HCM 2012, asks Congress to grant Arizona the authority to run the trial program. It also passed on a 6-0 vote.

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