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5:03 am
Sun April 22, 2012

Arizona's Illegal Workforce Is Down, So Now What?

Originally published on Sun April 22, 2012 4:41 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week on the most divisive immigration law in recent memory. Arizona's Legislature passed SB 1070 two years ago, but much of it has been put on hold pending the court's decision.

Still, supporters say the law has achieved one of its stated goals: Thousands of illegal immigrants have self-deported, leaving the state on their own. The real reason — and consequence — of such a demographic shift may be more complex, however.

Jossie was one of those illegal workers who decided to leave. When police cars drove behind her in traffic, she says, she would start shaking and wouldn't be able to breathe.

Jossie is still afraid of getting deported, so she asked that her last name be withheld. The summer that SB 1070 became law, she left the Phoenix area with her husband, two children and a cockatoo, Bernie.

The most controversial part of SB 1070 would require police to check the immigration status of those they believe are in the country illegally. A federal judge has blocked that provision, but Jossie was still so nervous driving to work she says she once hyperventilated and lost consciousness on the road.

She moved to New Mexico, where illegal immigrants can get driver's licenses. Her husband rekindled his catering business, and Jossie is cleaning houses again. She says there's a "big difference" between Arizona and New Mexico.

"New Mexico [offers] me opportunities. ... I am going to do something for New Mexico. I am going to tell my kids to do something good for New Mexico," she says.

A Population Drop, But No Clear Reason

Recent data from the Department of Homeland Security show Arizona's illegal immigrant population has fallen by 100,000 since 2009. For statistical reasons, the agency warns against making year-by-year comparisons.

"There are a lot of indications that the unauthorized population in Arizona has dropped," says Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, a group that tracks the U.S. population of illegal immigrants. "But it's very difficult to say how much it's decreased and why it's dropped."

That's because earlier in this immigration debate, the state's economy was in a tailspin. Jobs vaporized in Arizona's massive construction industry where immigrants tend to work, so it's hard to know exactly what factors prompted illegal workers to leave the state.

Regardless, Arizona will need a new labor force pretty soon. The research firm IHS Global Insight predicts Arizona will need 41,000 new construction workers by 2015 to keep up with projected demand.

"We're going to have to reward people that engage in hard labor," says Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University. "If we do that with a domestic labor force, it's going to cost more."

'Just One Battle'

Thinning the state's illegal workforce is part of the point, according to the legislation's supporters.

"It's not a finite victory. It is just one battle. It's just one phase of it," says Rey Torres, head of the Arizona Latino Republican Association.

He says the bigger prize would be a federal immigration policy that secures Arizona's border and improves the flow of commerce between the two countries. He's open to immigrant workers coming back, as long as someone keeps track of who they are.

"There is nothing in Arizona that tells me we are against immigration," he says. "We just happen to be against illegal immigration, and we strive to make that distinction."

Deciding To Stay

Of course, not everyone working illegally in Arizona has left. Ricardo, a 20-year-old college student, is still here. He says he knows countless people who've left for other states and a few who went to Mexico or Canada.

"If I leave, I leave everything that I believe in as a person and everything I've been working for the past two years," he says.

Ricardo, who also asked that his last name be withheld, stayed to concentrate on a different kind of work. He helps a group that rallies against laws like SB 1070, making phone calls to recruit and organize supporters.

"I'm tired of running, and I don't think we're going to run anymore," he says.

On Wednesday, Ricardo will follow the arguments in Washington, D.C. He says if the Supreme Court upholds SB 1070, a lot more people will leave Arizona.

Peter O'Dowd works with the public radio collaborative Fronteras.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The Supreme Court hears arguments this week over Arizona's controversial immigration law, known as SB 1070. Much of it has been put on hold pending the court's decision, but the law has achieved one of its stated goals: thousands of illegal immigrants have left the state on their own. Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ reports.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Here's why one of those illegal workers decided to leave:

JOSSIE: A lot of times when the police was driving behind me, I started shaking my body, stopped breathing.

O'DOWD: Jossie is still afraid of getting deported, so we agreed not to use her last name. The summer SB 1070 became law, she left the Phoenix area with her husband, two children and a cockatoo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

JOSSIE: Oh, did you love me, birdie?

O'DOWD: The most controversial part of SB 1070 would require police to check the immigration status of those they believe are in the country illegally. A federal judge has blocked that provision, but Jossie was still so nervous driving to work she says she once hyperventilated and lost consciousness on the road. She moved to New Mexico, where illegal immigrants can get driver's licenses. Her husband rekindled his catering business, and Jossie is cleaning houses again.

JOSSIE: New Mexico offer me opportunities, give me a hug. I am going to do something for New Mexico. I am going to tell my kids to do something good for New Mexico.

O'DOWD: Compare New Mexico to Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSSIE: Big difference.

O'DOWD: Recent data from the Department of Homeland Security show Arizona's illegal immigrant population has fallen by 100,000 since 2009. For statistical reasons, the agency warns against making year-by-year comparisons. Still...

JEFFREY PASSEL: There are a lot of indications that the unauthorized population in Arizona has dropped.

O'DOWD: Jeffrey Passel is a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, a group that tracks the U.S. population of illegal immigrants.

PASSEL: But it's very difficult to say how much it's decreased and why it dropped.

O'DOWD: That's because in the midst of this immigration debate, the state's economy was in a tailspin. Jobs vaporized in Arizona's massive construction industry where immigrants tend to work, so it's hard to know what prompted those workers to leave. Regardless, the state will need that labor pretty soon. The research firm IHS Global Insight predicts Arizona will need 41,000 new construction workers by 2015 to keep up with projected demand. Dennis Hoffman is an economist at Arizona State University.

DENNIS HOFFMAN: We're going to have to reward people that engage in hard labor. If we do that with a domestic labor force, it's going to cost more.

O'DOWD: And thinning the state's illegal workforce is part of the point, according to SB 1070's supporters.

REY TORRES: It's not a finite victory. It is just one battle. It is just one phase of it.

O'DOWD: Rey Torres heads the Arizona Latino Republican Association. He says the bigger prize would be a federal immigration policy that secures Arizona's border and improves the flow of commerce between the two countries. He's open to immigrant workers coming back, as long as someone keeps track of who they are.

TORRES: There is nothing in Arizona that tells me that we are against immigration. We just happen to be against illegal immigrants, and we strive to make that distinction.

O'DOWD: Of course, not everyone working illegally in Arizona has left.

RICARDO: If I leave, I'm leaving everything that I believe in as a person and everything that I've been working for the past two years.

O'DOWD: And this 20-year-old named Ricardo has no intention of leaving.

RICARDO: I'm tired of running and I don't think we're going to run anymore.

O'DOWD: Ricardo is a college student and we agreed to withhold his last name too. He says he knows countless people who've left for other states - a few went to Mexico or Canada.

RICARDO: Hi, may I speak with Jackie?

O'DOWD: Ricardo stayed here to concentrate on a different kind of work. On the day we met, he was making phone calls for a group that rallies against laws like SB 1070.

RICARDO: We really want to invite you to join us in this year's campaign.

O'DOWD: On April 25, Ricardo will follow the arguments in Washington, D.C. He says if the Supreme Court upholds SB 1070, a lot more people will leave Arizona. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.