Maricopa County prosecutors on Wednesday filed Arizona's first civil complaint against a business under a 22-month-old state law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas said Scottsdale Art Factory manager Michelle Hardas used a "subcontractor" who was an illegal immigrant to avoid the law's requirement that employees be legal workers.
A woman who answered the business' phone and did not identify herself said Hardas was unavailable and "we have no comment."
Thomas said Hardas directed the illegal immigrant, Hilario Santiago-Hernandez, to create a company called Santiago Furniture in April specifically to circumvent the law. He said sheriff's investigators have Hardas on tape telling Santiago that she was "trying to get around the system ... and change the rules so that I can make you be hired."
The civil suit asks a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to suspend Scottsdale Art Factory's business license for at least 10 days, and order the custom furniture maker to fire illegal workers and comply with state law.
"This is a very important day in this fight," Thomas said. "This employer will have their day in court."
The Republican-led Legislature passed the law in 2007 to help reduce the economic incentive for immigrants to enter the state illegally. Former Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat now serving as the nation's homeland security secretary, signed it.
Although authorities have examined dozens of cases, no businesses have faced civil actions for illegal hirings since the law went into effect. One difficulty prosecutors cited was their lack of civil subpoena power to make suspected violators hand over records and give testimony.
Thomas said he told the people of Maricopa County two years ago that it would take time to get a case in court, and, "It did take some time," he said.
Under the law, businesses found to have knowingly hired illegal immigrants can have their business licenses suspended or revoked. The law, which doesn't carry criminal penalties, also requires employers to verify the work eligibility of new workers through a federal database.
Cities across the country have passed similar measures, though some have been rejected in court.
Civil-rights groups have challenged Arizona's law, but federal courts have upheld it. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left the door open for other challenges, however, saying no one had been accused of violating the law at the time.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough stance on illegal immigration, said other municipalities also can enforce employer-sanctions laws.
"These illegal aliens are taking up jobs that U.S. citizens could have," he said. Americans "are laid off, trying to put food on the table for their family."