Yesterday, on his radio show, Thom Hartmann challenged Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s strategy of going after poor, undocumented immigrants rather than focusing on the wealthy business owners who hire them. Hartmann urged Arpaio to become an advocate for “going after rich white guys” who are “making all this happen.” Arpaio wouldn’t exactly commit to lobbying for immigration laws that target employers, but he did say he would arrest anyone who breaks the law — including “rich white guys”:
HARTMANN: By and large the people who are the most energetic, the most outspoken, and the most active like you are…are gung-ho to go after poor brown people. But when it comes to talking about laying their hands on the rich white guys — the guys who own the companies, the guys who own the companies that own the companies, the guys who are creating the demand — I’m not hearing your governor out there yelling and screaming about that. I’m not hearing you talk much about that. [...] Why aren’t you and Jan Brewer advocates for laws against the rich white guys that are making all this happens?
ARPAIO: I’m the only one grabbing the people and raiding these businesses! [...]
HARTMANN: I know, but my point is, you’re doing a lot of media, you’re out there, and you could be a voice for “Hey, let’s go after these rich white guys.”
ARPAIO: I say that!
HARTMANN: Will you go on the record right now and say “the rich white guys should be in jail?”
ARPAIO: Of course, I’ll go after anybody. Give me the evidence and I’ll go after them.
However, Arpaio doesn’t just go after “anybody.” For the most part, the Sheriff has gone after low-hanging fruit. Arpaio has raided businesses 37 times. He has been responsible for 26,146 deportations, but has only arrested a business person under the state’s employer sanctions law once. Earlier this year, Arpaio even admitted that his deputies were arresting “very few” non-Hispanics.
In his interview with Hartmann, Arpaio argued that he had “weak, Mickey Mouse” employer sanction laws to enforce. However, the problem isn’t necessarily that laws targeting employers are weak, it’s that they’re rarely enforced. Immigration lawyer David Kotick notes that “[e]mployers who hire undocumented aliens face steep fines and the loss of their business licenses. Some laws even mandate jail time for repeat offenders.” If an employer is shown to have engaged in a “pattern and practice” of violating the immigration employment laws, that person could face a prison sentence of up to six months. Arizona recently passed even tougher employer sanction laws that are being challenged in the Supreme Court by the Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, working in the U.S. without authorization is considered a civil violation. However, Arpaio has been creatively interpreting the law in a way that allows him to arrest and jail thousands of undocumented immigrants for being “co-conspirators” in their own smuggling. Arpaio and his former accomplice, the ex-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, were the only state officials in Arizona bringing charges of conspiracy to commit human smuggling against individuals paying to be smuggled.
In all fairness, while unscrupulous employers that hire and exploit undocumented labor should be punished to the full extent of the law, abiding by immigration employment laws isn’t an easy task. It is often difficult to distinguish between a valid Social Security document and a fake one. And while Arizona’s new laws require employers to electronically verify the status of their workers, studies have shown that the E-verify program fails to catch half of all undocumented workers.