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

Undocumented immigrants are searched before boarding a deportation flight in Mesa, Ariz., last June. Since the passage of the state's immigration law two years ago, thousands of illegal workers have left.
John Moore
Getty Images
Undocumented immigrants are searched before boarding a deportation flight in Mesa, Ariz., last June. Since the passage of the state's immigration law two years ago, thousands of illegal workers have left.

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 collaborativeFronteras .

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