Immigration mattersArizona's immigration measure would hurt H-1B workers, encourage businesses to relocate

Published 6 May 2010

New immigration law could hurt Arizona’s technology industry, keep top foreign students from schools in the state; in the long run, and depending on how it is enforced, the law could slow down the willingness of companies to invest in Arizona if these companies hire — legally hire — a lot of non-citizens

H-1B workers in Arizona who cannot immediately prove they are working in the United States legally may find themselves detained by police, or even jailed, under the state’s new immigration law. Legal experts said that an H-1B worker questioned by a police officer who has “reasonable suspicion” about his or her immigration status could be arrested while doing nothing more than going to a restaurant, grocery shopping, or even taking a walk around the block if they do not have their H-1B papers at the ready.

Patrick Thibodeau writes in Computerworld that federal immigration law requires that all non-U.S. citizens, including H-1B workers, have documentation showing that they are in the United States legally, but visa workers are rarely asked to produce their papers at any time or place, said legal experts.

Many visa holders are not likely to carry valuable and hard-to-replace paperwork on them at all times for practical reasons — they could be lost or stolen. Under the new Arizona law, however, every police officer becomes, in effect, an immigration enforcement agent that can demand the paperwork at any time.

Thibodeau writes that the main documents that foreign workers would need to show if asked include their I-94 card, which shows their lawful status, and most likely their passport. Immigration experts noted, though, that there are a number of ways that an H-1B worker can be in this country legally, but not have the paperwork to prove it.

For example, a worker could be carrying an expired I-94 card while waiting for new paperwork from U.S. immigration authorities, a process that could take months. Under current laws that worker could be in the U.S. legally even though the paperwork does not reflect it, said Gregory A. Wald, an attorney at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. “Is a police officer in Arizona going to understand that?”

Meanwhile, the Arizona law may discourage foreign national students from attending college in the state as well as discourage businesses from expanding or locating in Arizona, said Marko Maglich, an attorney at White & Case LLP. “H-1B workers and their employers will surely be among those who find it easier to go somewhere else where people don’t risk detention for forgetting their passports when they make a 7-11 run,” Maglich said.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University Law School professor and immigration expert, said that the paperwork legal aliens must carry under the Arizona law is not something that most people carry because they fear they will lose it. “They are very valuable (documents) and they usually don’t want to take them with you to the gym or the grocery store,” he said.

Employers will, at the very least, “be putting out memos to all of their H-1B workers telling them to make sure they carry around their H-1B documents at all times, said Yale-Loehr. In the long run, and depending on how the law is enforced, “it could slow down the willingness of companies to invest in Arizona if they hire a lot of non-citizens,” he said.

Thibodeau writes that the Arizona law will be challenged in court and may even push ahead efforts in Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. Some experts agree that what Arizona’s governor has signed into law is unique. “No state until Arizona has made it a crime to not have that paperwork on your person,” Sarah Hawk, who heads the immigration practice at Fisher & Phillips LLP.