Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Temp worker bill advances in Ariz. House

Ronald J. Hansen
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 18, 2008 05:16 PM

Gene Feldman said he checks the employment eligibility of all the workers at his structural steel company and has advertised in an effort to fill empty jobs that pay at least $12 an hour.

Still, the Tempe business owner is losing workers.

"We've hired one person since Jan. 1. He came from out of state," Feldman told Arizona lawmakers. "I'm very confident about my business and very worried about the future."

Feldman, like many employers, wants the Legislature to pass a bill that would seek federal permission for Arizona to create and run a guest-worker program for Mexicans to fill jobs Americans aren't taking.

In the wake of the state's new employer-sanctions law, which threatens to pull licenses from businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants, the proposed legislation is seen as another bold step toward addressing a problem that federal authorities have not.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, passed 6-0 Monday in a hearing of the House Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee that he chairs. Rep. Albert Tom, D-Chambers, voted present. A similar bill introduced by Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox, is pending in the Senate.

At least 27 lawmakers have signed on as sponsors to the bills - 18 Democrats and nine Republicans. Lawmakers in Colorado and Kansas have inquired about the plan Arizona is considering, Arzberger said. Even so, it is unclear whether the bills have enough support to receive a vote in either chamber.

Critics have suggested a temporary-worker program needs to be passed by Congress, and that Americans would fill such jobs if wages were not undercut by foreign workers.

"This bill will allow many people who are here illegally . . . to get back-door amnesty," said Carl Seel, chairman of the PAChyderm Coalition, a pro-Republican organization that opposes the legislation. He tried to equate the proposal with slavery, a move Konopnicki rejected as untrue and off point.

Konopnicki stressed that the bill would create a two-year test program that allowed only legal immigrants from Mexico who would be screened and monitored. It doesn't offer a path to citizenship or residency and would require the workers to remain with a sponsoring employer.

Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, said the bill is a good start, but should ensure safe working conditions and promised wages for workers. Ideally, it should allow those workers to work with other employers if they want, she said.

The legislation comes as the Bush administration has proposed loosening and expanding the existing H-2A program for growers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis. That program is considered overly cumbersome and is seldom used.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-4493.

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