Here to Stay

Radio Writing

How undocumented immigrants get around Arizona’s immigration law.

Listen to the story on The World here.

Marco Werman: Arizona is making the case for its signature immigration-enforcement law before the Supreme Court today. SB 1070 may be the state’s most famous so-called “self-deportation” bill, but it was not the first. Before Arizona made it difficult for undocumented immigrants to live here, legislators made it difficult for them to work here, and voters made it difficult for them to study here. The point has always been to make the place so difficult that unauthorized immigrants will leave or “self-deport” on their own. But despite the deliberately hostile climate, most haven’t left. From Phoenix, Devin Browne reports on the ways undocumented immigrants manage to circumvent these laws, finding, in some cases, some very surprising loopholes.

Devin: SB 1070’s most powerful precedent is the 2007 Arizona Legal Worker’s Act, which mandated that all employers verify workers’ social security numbers or risk fines and sanctions. Immigrant electricians like Alfonso, who asked that we use only his first name, were told by their bosses, “You’ve got three months to bring me a good social security number, or you gotta get out.”

Alfonso: You think it’s easy to go and pick up a social security number?! It’s not easy!

Devin: In fact it was so not easy that Alfonso ended up doing what Arizona legislators hoped: He left, and moved to Texas. But all he found in Texas were more bosses who wanted a real social security number.

Alfonso: In Texas, it’s VERY difficult, more than Arizona. In Arizona, you know what is the city. In Texas, you don’t know nothing.

Devin: So after three months, Alfonso came home. The lesson he’d learned is that he couldn’t get a formal job in another state, and the only people who would give him informal – or cash – jobs were the ones who knew him. And the people who knew him live in Arizona.

Alfonso: The boss say, “Oh, it’s Ok. I pay cash.” You know? And when the people work, evvverybody pay cash.

Devin: And so, Alfonso worked as an independent contractor handyman, for cash, or he saw his own clients as an electrician, also for cash. He wasn’t alone. Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California who studied the effects of Arizona’s Legal Workers Act found the law immediately reduced the unauthorized population by about 17%. But they also found that the percentage of self-employed undocumented immigrants doubled. Researcher Magnus Lofstrom has a good guess why.

Lofstrom: As a self-employed individual – you’re clearly not required to check the work authorization of yourself.

Devin: Alfonso’s workarounds are informal. He’s relying on individual clients and bosses to bypass the rules. Other laws aimed at getting undocumented immigrants out of Arizona are more institutional, and thus require a more institutional workaround. Such is the case with Proposition 300, which was passed in 2006, and required that all state colleges, including community colleges, charge undocumented students non-resident tuition. Students like Francisco Duran saw their tuition go up by about 300%.

Francisco: They were indirectly telling us: Don’t go to school. I mean, $1,000 for one class — it’s too much!

Devin: Arizona was actually directly telling him not to go to school (at least not in this state), but for Duran, there was no upside to leaving. He’d have to pay out-of-state tuition anywhere he went at this point. Plus, he loves Phoenix.

Francisco: I love it. even after everything, this is my hometown. No matter what people tell me, this is my town. This is where I grew up, this is my city, no matter if I’m driving and I see 10 sheriffs’ cars, it’s normal for me. I love it here, I love everything about Arizona.

Devin: Francisco says whatever laws the legislators pass, there will always be workarounds. In this case, the work-around is The Navajo Technical College.

NTC is based in Crownpoint, New Mexico. It’s chartered through the Navajo Nation, which means its pay structure is based on tribal membership, not state residency — so Prop 300 doesn’t apply. Navajo students pay $45/credit and everyone else — including undocumented students — pays $90/credit, which is essentially what community college credits used to cost undocumented students before Proposition 300.

There are about 200 students enrolled at NTC’s Phoenix campus right now. Almost all of them are undocumented immigrants. Cesar Valdez is one of them, and he’s so excited about the college that he volunteers to make presentations at high schools to convince other immigrant students to sign up.

Cesar: One of the girls actually started crying, cause she was a senior; she was like, “I’m so glad you came because up to this day, I didn’t know what I was going to do, I was thinking about moving to California or New Mexico or even going back to Mexico.” And she’s like, “I didn’t know this was happening. I thank you so much.”

Devin: And with that, Valdez did exactly what the legislators behind the slew of immigration enforcement bills most fear. He gave another undocumented immigrant a reason, and a way, to stay.