Immigration measure suffers rare defeatby Arthur H. Rotstein on Nov. 08, 2008, under Elections, Local, Special
Arizona voters’ rejection of a ballot initiative on illegal immigration pleased its hard-line opponents, who credited them with seeing through a thinly veiled effort to weaken an existing law.
The Stop Illegal Hiring Act was backed by business interests, including restaurant operators and agricultural concerns, and offered employers easier ways to prove they had checked on potential employees’ right to work.
Arizonans rejected changing the state’s first-in-the-nation employer sanctions law by 59 percent to 41 percent. It was the first time a measure on illegal immigration hadn’t passed since the issue became a hot topic early in the decade.
“People are smart enough to know it was deceit, a fraud, a farce and a lie, and the public responded to see through it,” said State Rep. Russell Pearce, author of the original employer sanctions law.
Pearce, R-Mesa, said he is working with many other states currently trying to emulate Arizona’s legislation.
“Arizona’s will be proven to be the most effective and nondiscriminatory law in the nation,” he said.
Other foes of illegal immigration also said voters saw through the pitch that the measure would strengthen the employer sanctions law.
“The Chamber of Commerce along with other business interests . . . decided that they could use a propaganda campaign to weaken the law, trying to obfuscate,” said Chris Simcox, head of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. “The reason why it was defeated was an education campaign that said ‘No, this is not it. Don’t fall for the ruse.’ ”
Even a major supporter, Westmarc chief executive Jack Lunsford, said a perception that the measure would weaken the existing law and “overwhelming passion” concerning illegal immigration contributed to its defeat.
In 2007, a Republican-majority Legislature approved and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano signed the current employer sanctions law.
Designed to dampen the economic incentive for illegal immigrants to come across the Arizona border, the law says employers who knowingly hire them can lose their business licenses.
Backers contended that it was meant to zero in on dishonest employers, protect those who are honest and repair flaws in the 2007 law.
Among other things, it would have tightened rules on filing employer sanctions complaints and strengthened protections for those employers following the rules.
It also would have tinkered with Arizona’s mandatory use of E-Verify, a federal program that lets employers use an Internet-based system to check new employees right to work.
Supporters of the original employer sanctions law, such as Pearce, insisted that Proposition 202 would gut investigations into illegal hirings by raising the standard of proof for alleging violations to an unreasonable level.
Another leading opponent, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater, called Proposition 202 “strictly an employer amnesty bill.”
He said the measure’s proponents waited until the final month or two to push their TV ad campaign, and “I think that helped us.”
Opponents countered through e-mails and automated phone calls, with the help of national organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Lunsford, president and CEO of Westmarc, a Peoria-based regional coalition of business, government and education entities, said two changes the initiative called for were important to Westmarc.
One required anyone alleging employer violations to file signed complaints.
The other gave prosecutors leeway to determine whether a complaint was frivolous before investigating.
Lunsford said he believes the most substantive reason for its failure is overwhelming passion and divisiveness about the issue of illegal immigration.
“Those who want the strongest enforcement possible, even if they don’t understand the existing law, still want it enforced,” he said.
William Dixon, head of the University of Arizona’s political science department, said the initiative’s failure was a bit surprising.
But he noted, “It actually loosened up current law; it didn’t strengthen it, by relieving some of the penalties on employers.”