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4:00 pm
Tue April 24, 2012

Immigrants Find Loopholes In Arizona Self-Deportation Laws

Senate Bill 1070 may be Arizona’s most famous self-deportation bill, but it was not the first. Long before legislators came up with a law that would make it difficult to live in Arizona, they passed a law that made it difficult to work in Arizona. This was the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act.

It was the first state law in the country that mandated employers check workers’ Social Security numbers against federal databases or risk fines.

Immigrant electricians like Alfonso were told: ‘You’ve got three months to get a good Social Security number. Otherwise, you’ve gotta get out of here.’

To which Alfonso replied: "It's easy to go and pick up a Social Security? It's not easy!"

It wasn’t easy because Alfonso isn’t authorized to be here, which is why he asked that we not use his last name. Alfonso actually ended up doing what the E-Verify legislators hoped -- he left Arizona, and moved to Texas. But all he found in Texas were more bosses who wanted a real Social Security number.

"In Texas, it's very difficult, more than Arizona," Alfonso said. "In Arizona, you know what is the city. In Texas, you don't know nothing."

So after three months, Alfonso came home. Basically he couldn’t get a formal job in either state, and the only people who would give him informal -- or cash -- jobs are the ones who know him. And the people who know him live in Arizona.

People like his new boss. "The boss say, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ I pay cash," Alfonso said. "You know? And when the people work, everybody pay cash."

Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California who studied the effects of Arizona’s Legal Workers Act found the law reduced the unauthorized population by about 17 percent in the year after the law passed, but it also left immigrants like Alfonso with essentially two loopholes: Work as an independent contractor or start your own business.

The latter option, according to researcher Magnus Lofstram, was hugely popular.

"It's a roughly a doubling of the self-employment rate among this population in Arizona," Lofstram said. "It goes from about 8 percent to 16 percent."

Alfonso actually does both -- he's an independently contracted handyman for a property management company, and he has his own company for electrical work. It's a complicated situation for Alfonso because he makes less money now, but he also no longer pays taxes, like he used to with the Social Security number he'd made up.

From 1996-2010, Alfonso said he paid taxes. But last year, and this one, he won't. "I don't have W2," he said.

Even before legislators made it so complicated for unauthorized immigrants to work here, voters made it complicated for them to study here, when they passed Proposition 300 in 2006. The proposition required all state colleges -- including community colleges -- to charge undocumented students non-resident tuition. For a student like Francisco Duran, this meant tuition went up by about 300 percent.

"They were indirectly telling us: 'Don't go to school,' " Duran said. "I mean, $1,000 for one class -- it's too much!"

At this point, Duran would pay out-of-state tuition anywhere -- so “self-deporting” wouldn’t help. Plus, he loves Arizona and said that whatever laws the legislators pass, there will always be a work-around.

The work-around in this case is The Navajo Technical College. NTC is based in Crownpoint, New Mexico and because it's chartered through the Navajo Nation, its pay structure is based on tribal membership, not state residency -- so Proposition 300 doesn't apply.

Navajo students pay $45 per credit and everyone else, including undocumented students, pays $90 per credit, which is essentially what community college credits used to cost undocumented students before the proposition.

Most of NTC's Phoenix students -- just fewer than 200 -- aren't in the US legally. Cesar Valdez is one of them, and he's so excited about the college that he makes presentations at high schools to convince other immigrant students to sign up.

"One of the girls actually started crying," Valdez said. "Because 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'."

And with that, Valdez did exactly what the legislators behind the slew of self-deportation bills fear most -- he gave another undocumented immigrant a reason to stay.