A first: Arizona firm punished under hiring law

Published 22 December 2009

For the first time in Arizona, a company employing illegal immigrants has been punished for violating the law; the company has its business license suspended for ten days and was put on a 3-year probation; the punishment is symbolic because the company is already out of business

U.S.-Mexico border fence

Arizona’s employer-sanctions law has punished its first business. Waterworld, a water park formerly in northeast Phoenix, was the first Arizona company to have its business license suspended for ten days as the law prescribes for first-time offenders, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas announced Thursday. The business also will be subject to three years of probation.

The Arizona Republic’s J. J. Hensley and Michael Kiefer write that as with many aspects of the law, there was a catch: Waterworld is already out of business, so the punishment will remain symbolic unless the company starts doing business again. Waterworld’s parent company, Golfland Entertainment Centers, which operates Mesa Golfland-Sunsplash, will not lose any business privileges. The company did agree to certain measures that include using the E-Verify system, verifying Social Security numbers and providing proof, if requested, that all employees are legal. To go after the corporation would have been more difficult, Thomas said, especially when the allegation centered on one property in Arizona. The sanction, though, may have symbolic value for Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who have withstood criticism for the way the employer-sanctions law, formally known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, has been enforced since it went into effect in January 2008.

Arpaio’s deputies have conducted more than two dozen work-site raids armed with search warrants for employees who had allegedly committed crimes such as forgery, fraud and identity theft. Deputies arrested hundreds of workers on those allegations, but until recently, enforcement of the law seemed to avoid its intended targets: employers. That started to change last month when Thomas said his office had filed a complaint against a custom cabinet-and-furniture business, Scottsdale Art Factory, which was raided in January. That case continues to move through the court system and was recently moved to the U.S. District Court in Arizona.

Thursday’s announcement of actual sanctions against a business gave Arpaio and Thomas their first collar of an employer - and it didn’t matter to them that the company was already out of business. “We’re now seeing the fruit of these investigations,” Thomas said. “Business owners and others should look at these actions as an indication that the law is going to be enforced.” Thomas also talked about the preventive effect of the employer-sanctions law, which he said “has had an enormous effect on illegal immigration in this state,” citing a drop in illegal immigration greater than in other states.

The case against Waterworld started with a work-site raid. It was the first of its kind when deputies descended on the three locations that Golfland Entertainment Centers operated in the Valley in June 2008. It came with some fanfare as the media was there to cover sheriff’s deputies arresting ten employees in the initial effort to enforce the employer-sanctions law.

Eloiza Bojorquez-Ayala was among those arrested, and it took months for investigators to build a case that would offer some proof that Waterworld human-resources personnel knew Bojorquez-Ayala was in the country illegally when she was hired. Bojorquez-Ayala was hired three times, according to the complaint. She was first hired in early April 2007 under the name Lorenia Hernandez-Sandoval, according to the complaint. But when the Social Security Administration alerted Waterworld management that Hernandez-Sandoval’s Social Security number was bad, she was fired. Less than a week later, the same person was re-hired using the name Eloiza Bojorquez, according to the complaint, though the employer knew she was the same person fired earlier in the month.

Employers knew she was the same person when she was hired a third time, using the name Blasa Reyes DeGuerrero, in March 2008, according to the complaint. The last hire triggered a violation of the employer-sanctions law, which applied only to illegal workers knowingly hired after 1 January 2008. Investigators were tipped off that the hire was done knowingly and intentionally in part because Bojorquez is 36 and her false ID claimed she was 62.

Ultimately, attorneys for Golfland and Waterworld negotiated with the County Attorney’s Office and reached an agreement that was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on Wednesday. Since the raid, Golfland Entertainment Centers has divested itself of two properties in Arizona. The lease for Waterworld was not renewed, and the remodeled site in northeast Phoenix now operates under new owners as a Wet ‘n’ Wild. The other water park the company operated in the Valley, Big Surf in Tempe, is scheduled to reopen next year under new management.

A Golfland spokesman said the company had cooperated with investigators since the allegations were brought up last summer. “(The company) has agreed to enroll in the Voluntary Employer Enhanced Compliance Program to show our responsibility as an accountable, corporate citizen,” Jeff Golner said in a statement. “Mesa Golfland remains open for business as usual.”