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Did Arizona Really Win at the Supreme Court?

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Last week, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's "Legal Workers Arizona Act" (LAWA) enabling the state to revoke the business licenses of employers who hire undocumented workers. The ruling on the state's version of an "employer sanction" law passed in 2007 (not to be confused with the state's broader anti-immigrant SB 1070 passed last year and also headed for the high court) may backfire big time for the state.

In March, the Arizona state senate voted down five aggressively anti-immigrant bills (including an attack on birthright citizenship for children born in Arizona). A major reason was push back from the business community. Some 60 Arizona-based CEOs (including U.S. Airways, Ernst & Young, Wells Fargo Bank, and Cox Communications) penned a letter to lawmakers, urging them to stop passing harsh anti-illegal immigrant laws. The Arizona business community has been devastated (to the tune of $200 million) by boycotts and other backlash caused by the national attention SB 1070 has garnered. That means fewer jobs and less tax revenue. This is the result of citizens and residents across the nation pushing back with their wallets against SB 1070.

The effect on the state's convention and tourism industry after SB 1070 was immediate. Corporations and event planners, troubled by Arizona's anti-immigrant image, canceled convention reservations in Phoenix -- ordinarily a popular convention site. The Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association cite data on bookings showing Phoenix's ranking had dropped from the top four destinations nationwide to 23rd.

The fact that other states are mimicking Arizona's anti-immigrant strategy is foolish for them as well. Eliminating the undocumented workforce without providing an avenue for their labor to be utilized in the United States would have devastating economic consequences throughout the country. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers important data. Although immigrants account for 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, they make up about 15 percent of the workforce. They are overrepresented among workers largely because the rest of our population is aging: Immigrants and their children have accounted for 58 percent of U.S. population growth since 1980. This probably won't change anytime soon. Low U.S. fertility rates and the upcoming retirement of the baby boomers mean that immigration is likely to be the only source of growth in what we call the "prime age" workforce -- workers ages 25 to 55 -- in the decades ahead. As record numbers of retirees begin drawing Social Security checks, younger immigrant workers will be paying taxes, helping to ease the financial pressures on the system.

Moreover, immigrants tend to be concentrated in high- and low-skilled occupations that complement -- rather than compete with -- jobs held by native workers. And the foreign-born workers who fill lower-paying jobs are typically first-hired/first-fired employees, allowing employers to expand and contract their workforces rapidly. As a result, immigrants experience higher employment than natives during booms -- but they suffer higher job losses during downturns, including the current one.

Immigration also stimulates growth by creating new consumers, entrepreneurs and investors. As a result of this growth, economists estimate that wages for the vast majority of American workers are slightly higher than they would be without immigration. Economists also estimate that for each job an immigrant fills, an additional job is created.

Arizona stands to see very negative effects if a massive exclusion of the undocumented workforce occurs. Before the state's enactment of LAWA in 2007, the state experienced decades worth of growth, boosted by its estimated 12 percent undocumented labor force. The new law caused many headaches and loss of production for Arizona employers who need workers.]

Increased ICE raids, stepped up border enforcement, and employer sanctions have not reduced undocumented immigration to the United States. We are wasting billions of dollars at home in what has become a war on immigrants. But undocumented workers continue to migrate. The failure of these harsh efforts must teach us something. The enforcement-only approach has resulted in human tragedy, increased poverty, and family separation. This is a challenge that requires us to understand why workers come here and to address the challenge in a more sensible manner.

It's time to come to our senses and realize that the enforcement-only approach has failed. The rise of employer sanctions enforcement causes hardship for our fellow human travelers who only seek an opportunity to work to feed their families at an honest day's wage. Undocumented migration is the result of factors and phenomena way beyond the control of intimidation, guns, and militarization. The time to get smart has arrived; we must begin considering more creative approaches by understanding the forces at work.

Our current economic policies like NAFTA produce displaced people in Mexico, criminalize them once they arrive in the United States, and view them simply as a source of cheap labor for employers. We need to see migrants as human beings first and then formulate a policy to protect their human and labor rights, along with those of other working people in this country. Arizona's victory at the Supreme Court won't help the state's economy or its image.