By JOHN RUDOLF
Six complaints have been lodged against Lake Havasu City businesses under the state’s harsh new employer sanctions law, which aims to curb illegal immigration by penalizing employers for hiring undocumented workers. Eight complaints have been filed in Mohave County as a whole.
“They’ve been coming in routinely,” said Jace Zack, chief deputy county attorney for Mohave County, who is heading the immigration investigations.
The new law, which went into effect Jan. 1, works primarily through citizen-generated complaints, which are then investigated by county attorneys. If the investigations find evidence that an employer has knowingly or intentionally hired an illegal immigrant, a civil complaint will then be filed in state court.
Until a complaint is filed in court, businesses under investigation will not be identified, Zack said. “I can’t give out the names,” he said. “It would definitely jeopardize the investigation, to give employers advance notice that we’re looking at them.”
Even if some complaints prove factually correct, a violation of the law may not have occurred. “Just because a complaint’s been filed, doesn’t mean that an employer violated the law. It’s only the knowing violations” that are against the law, Zack said.
Earlier in the year, county attorney Matt Smith expressed concern that complaints could swamp his office’s ability to handle them. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
“There’s probably fewer [complaints] than we thought we might get,” Zack said. “We’re certainly not swamped with them at this point.”
That may change as the county finishes its investigations and files formal complaints. The charges - while civil, not criminal - will be filed in state court, and will require significant time and effort to prosecute. “That’s when more of my time gets taken up - litigating these issues,” Zack said. “Once we go to court, it’s going to get a lot more expensive.”
The county has been allocated $66,000 from the state to handle the prosecutions. In an interview earlier this year, Smith questioned whether that would be sufficient to handle what may eventually be dozens of civil cases.
“At some point it could be overwhelming, but there's nothing we can do but do our jobs,” said Smith.
Complicating matters, the Arizona Legislature is amending the statute to clarify some aspects of the law. The revisions currently are stalled in the Legislature. Until the new law takes effect, Mohave County will not file any complaints.
Further complicating matters, the challenge to the law, known officially as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, continues in federal court. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest court to hear the ongoing challenges, which have been brought by Arizona business groups and joined by civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The groups have repeatedly argued that Arizona lacks the right to enforce immigration law, which has long been regulated by the federal government.
The 9th Circuit Court is a federal appellate court, covering California, Arizona, New Mexico and other Western states. It is the last stop before the Supreme Court.
Judges for the 9th Circuit refused to suspend the provisions of the law while it hears the case, allowing investigations such as those against local businesses to move forward.
Yet the law’s opponents may find friendly ground in the 9th Circuit, which has ruled favorably toward immigrants and their supporters in recent years. The court is also known for its sometimes controversial rulings, such as its decisions legalizing medical marijuana in California, and ruling to strike the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance recited in California public schools.
Were the appellate court to strike down Arizona’s law, the appeals process would continue to the Supreme Court, which has reversed the 9th Circuit regularly. Whether the 9th Circuit would order the law suspended during the appeal is unknown.