By BEN MEYERSON, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Jan. 21, 2008) - Ash Patel's workers have been leaving him in droves.
It's not because the sagging stock market has forced him to let people go—Arizona's new immigration law has driven away his staff, Patel said.
"I would estimate I've lost at least 10 to 20 percent of my workforce" in the five Arizona hotels he runs with Southwest Hospitality Management, in anticipation of the law that took effect Jan. 1, Patel said. The company's hotels include a Best Western in Payson, Ariz., and a Fairfield Inn and Ramada in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The law takes a slightly different tack than most immigration controls by aiming squarely at businesses. Get caught employing illegal aliens twice in a 6-month period, and you're out of business.
As Maryland legislators consider putting immigration reform on the table in the General Assembly this spring, laws like those in Arizona, or Oklahoma, where the law not only goes after businesses but also makes it a felony to transport or shelter illegal immigrants, could be used as models.
Maryland Delegate Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, said he's introducing a package of bills aimed at illegal immigration this spring and the Arizona measure caught his eye.
"We may introduce something similar to the Arizona bill," McDonough said. "The folks that helped write that bill are helping us write our bill."
McDonough wants to impose penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, but he said he's not looking at something quite so broad and stringent—yet.
"We're trying to start with the state of Maryland," he said. "We want to ban contractors who have employed illegals from state contracts."
Maryland Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline, who is running against U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrist in the Republican primary, said he's also introducing a package of bills in the Senate to make life more difficult for illegal immigrants.
"I've worked to deny benefits to those here who don't deserve them, and also to make sure that if they're here illegally, they don't get jobs," he said. "We'll look for verification of citizenship before they get hired. If they don't have jobs and they don't have benefits, they'll go home."
In Arizona, the new law has taken an economic toll already. Immigrant workers seem to be leaving the state, but they're leaving behind jobs that some business owners fear won't be filled. In addition, the penalties are frightening businesses away from the state, or freezing their growth, some business owners have said.
With what looks to be a nationwide recession on the horizon, this is not a good thing, said Joseph Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau.
"What this law does is create uncertainty for business, increased risk," Sigg said. "Anyone wanting to invest in Arizona is going to be extra wary."
Farm laborers are also scarce.
"Workers are simply not returning just because of the overall climate," Sigg said.
In the hotel industry, Patel said he is paying his workers more than the market rate to try to attract new, legal workers, but he's had little success in the past.
"We've tried everything in the past, but we can't fill some of these positions," particularly entry-level room cleaners and bed-turners, Patel said. "One of the realities that our legislators fail to accept is that the culture of Americans has changed—we refuse to work at certain jobs out of high school."
Not all Arizona business operators see the rules as unworkable.
Daniel Foster, president of Foster's Painting and Wall Covering, said he fully supports the law. Foster goes even further than the law dictates: he runs a full background check and a drug test for each and every prospective employee.
"If anything comes back, that's it. I don't hire them," Foster said. "I don't have felons working for me, I don't have thieves, I don't have illegal immigrants, and I feel better because my customers are protected better. And you know what? I'm building a company to last."
He said he lost $2 million in business last year by being outbid on contracts by companies he believes were hiring illegal immigrants.
However, he said he's had no problems filling his jobs.
"The phone rings off the hook" when there's a job opening, Foster said. "I just hired two new people today."
In Maryland, no one is positive how such a law would affect the state. But Kathleen Snyder, president and chief executive of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said much of Maryland's economy is immigrant-based.
"There are companies throughout the state who rely very, very heavily on illegal immigrants, from tech companies, to hospitals, to people working for seafood companies, to hotels and restaurants on the Eastern Shore of Maryland," Snyder said.
But the main flaw with each state imposing its own immigration reforms, Snyder said, is that it creates a piecemeal compilation of rules that favors some states above others.
"When one state enacts a law that is more onerous than another, it chases business to another state," Snyder said. "It's certainly going to drive some businesses out of the state of Arizona."
Instead, Snyder said immigration reform should come from the federal government.
Maryland Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George's, agreed, and added funding should be distributed nationwide as well.
"The state of Maryland shouldn't do it without help from the federal government," Ramirez said. "We can pass all the laws we want, but without the resources, it's just feel good to say, 'Hey, we're cracking down on it,' when really it's nothing."
In the end, Maryland's immigration reform is likely to be shaped by its more liberal political climate, and conservatives advocating immigration reform are aware of it.
"We're far more likely to pass legislation giving more rights to illegal immigrants because of the domination by liberal Democrats," said Maryland Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County. "These are all uphill fights in the state of Maryland.
Still, that doesn't mean measures might not be proposed.
"The purpose of introducing legislation is to point out problems in the state so that citizens back home can look at them," McDonough said. "You don't refrain from introducing legislation because the governor and the legislature are out of left field from the mainstream thinking of the state of Maryland."