Unwilling to wait for a federal fix, some southern Arizona lawmakers want the state to run its own temporary foreign worker program.
The proposal crafted by Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox, would let companies suffering a "labor shortage" seek permission from the state Industrial Commission to bring in their own workers from Mexico. It even would have the state provide identification cards to foreigners given permission to work here.
"The federal government has not met the responsibility to come up with comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
Arzberger said the economy is hurting, and many firms have found themselves without the workers they need.
SB1482 has drawn a number of co-sponsors, including many legislators representing the border area. And even Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson, who did not sign on as a sponsor, said he supports the concept of a legal guest worker program.
But if Arzberger gets her measure signed into law here, she needs one more thing: congressional approval.
Arzberger said she already has asked Democrats representing the state in Washington - where they hold the majority in both the House and Senate - to back her plan. But the two members of the delegation whose districts cover the border said they want some questions answered before they're willing to push her proposal.
Rep. Raul Grijalva said he understands the frustration of Arzberger and other Arizonans over the lack of action in Washington.
But Grijalva said there are too many unanswered questions about "assured worker protections" for him to back federal legislation.
First, he said, a temporary worker should never replace an available U.S. resident. And Grijalva said guest workers "don't become a subclass that's exploited and paid less."
"That's what drives wages down," the congressman said.
"Your $16-an-hour job goes down to $9."
Grijalva also said allowing states to enact their own temporary worker programs would remove the pressure he believes is necessary to convince his colleagues to enact a comprehensive solution.
C.J. Karamargin, press aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said the first-term lawmaker also wants "details" of how Arzberger's program would work. Karamargin questioned whether Congress even could give Arizona the authority to decide to let foreign workers into the country.
In fact, one provision of SB1482 would require federal border officials to allow anyone with a state-issued temporary worker card to enter the country, regardless of whether the person is otherwise qualified to cross the border.
Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, called the measure "a good-faith effort" to deal with the labor shortage in certain areas. But Friend, like Grijalva, questioned how it would work. For example, she said it would be up to the Industrial Commission to craft the rules of exactly how the program would work.
That would include how to determine that a company is experiencing a true "labor shortage" as opposed to simply wanting to be able to hire workers at a wage lower than legal U.S. residents are willing to earn.
Friend noted the legislation covers not just farm workers, but also industries where many workers are represented by unions, including restaurant employees, construction workers and those involved in landscaping.
"My concern is that certainly Arizona residents get first shot at the jobs," Friend said. "I've got concerns of how much of an effort an employer has to make to fill the jobs here, whether they're really reaching out and trying to fill the jobs here from all available sources," she said.
But Arzberger doubts that any of the labor shortage in Arizona is due to employers not wanting to pay higher wages.
"Not everybody wants to go work in the vegetable field," she said. "The same thing's true with the roofing industry and the landscaping industry and the contractors."
And Arzberger said there are just some jobs that can't be filled at any price by legal residents.
"How many people," she said, "do we have that are willing to go out in 120 degrees and work?"
Arzberger said she's even asked some people if they'd do some of these jobs, even at $50 an hour. "And they said no," she said.
Getting the required congressional approval could prove difficult.
Arzberger's push comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposing reforms in the federal work visa process designed to expedite bringing in foreign workers. And Gov. Janet Napolitano, in a letter to Chao, has suggested having border states involved in that process