In 2007 and 2008, Arizona legislators enacted the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), which, among other things, imposed severe criminal penalties on individuals who use false identifying information “with the intent to obtain or continue employment.” These penalties apply whether the information a worker uses belongs to a real person or not. The legislative measures were conceived of by former legislator Russell Pearce as part of Arizona’s broader platform of “attrition through enforcement”— the goal of which is to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants and their families that they will “self-deport.”

Since 2008, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), in collaboration with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO), has used the two statutes amended by LAWA—Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-2008 and § 13-2009(A)(3)—as well as the state’s forgery statute—Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-2002—to conduct intimidating workplace raids.

MCSO conducted more than 80 raids between 2008 and 2014, arresting over 800 workers. It was mostly workers who were arrested and rarely their employers. In many of the raids, law enforcement personnel descended on local businesses, holding workers incommunicado for hours and parading arrestees before the media. Workers were jailed for weeks or months, and many faced deportation after their convictions.

These raids ultimately criminalized 800 immigrants who were given felony convictions, which categorically disqualified immigrants from immigration relief and pretrial bail. Before 2014, the majority of those prosecuted were deported. The worksite raids devastated families in the process. The climate of fear created by the raids has also led many migrants to retreat from public life. Many worried every morning when they left for work that they might not come home at night.

Through their actions, Sheriff Arpaio and Maricopa County’s top prosecutor Bill Montgomery have made undocumented workers more vulnerable at work. Many employers know their workers are undocumented and have been complicit in their use of false identity information to work. But employers were largely not targeted in enforcement efforts. Workers have therefore essentially been trapped at their jobs, enduring workplace abuse such as discrimination and wage theft, but afraid that if they seek help, law enforcement authorities will prosecute rather than protect them.

We worked for years under the implicit threat that we would be deported if we complained about how we were treated. In the end, Sheriff Arpaio raided the restaurant—not to help the workers but to arrest us.”

— Fernando Abundes, who spent months in jail following a 2013 raid at Uncle Sam’s Restaurant in Phoenix. He suffered labor violations while at work but was afraid to seek help because of Sheriff Arpaio’s raids and County Attorney Montgomery’s identity theft prosecutions