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Next stop for Pearce’s immigration bill: House floor

For years, beating the drum for increased local authority to pursue illegal immigrants has delivered some of Arizona’s lawmakers waves of public support, and to a lesser degree, brought criticism.

Nothing is new about that. But because immigration issues tend toward the hyperbolic in Arizona, and the approaching election beckons lawmakers to appear tougher on immigration than those gunning for their seats, a bill that promises to render a great deal of that increased authority looks more likely than ever to become law.

S1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, would ban ‘sanctuary city’ policies, enable law enforcement to charge illegal immigrants under state trespass laws and require increased reporting of suspected illegal immigrants.

The bill passed the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee March 31, after more than three hours of debate and a parade of stakeholder testimony. The bill, which already has been approved by the Senate, now heads to the House floor via the Rules Committee.

The marathon-length hearing showed not only the polarizing nature of the issue, but left some of the lawmakers and those giving testimony scratching their heads over a strike-everything amendment introduced two days prior to the hearing that created new technical challenges for the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa, for years has led the Legislature’s fight against illegal immigration. He has sponsored bills similar to S1070 during past legislative sessions, but without success.

Pearce said he feels confident about the bill this year, and he expects to see his omnibus bill signed into law.

“This will be the most important law enforcement bill we pass in 10 years,” he said.

Sanctuary city bills have been rejected several times; Janet Napolitano vetoed bills that included nearly identical trespass provisions three times while she was governor.

Napolitano explained those vetoes by saying the expansion of state trespass laws would not line up with federal immigration policies because they were too broad, too vague, and would lead to racial profiling. She said expanding state trespass laws would prompt lawsuits against the state.

Napolitano, during a lecture at Arizona State University last month, characterized the expansion of Arizona’s trespass laws as a “cookie-cutter” approach to immigration enforcement.

“I thought I was right when I vetoed it the first time. I thought I was right when I vetoed it the second time. And I thought I was right when I vetoed it the third time,” Napolitano said. “Those laws take away the ability of law enforcement in different communities to set their own priorities.”

Napolitano said she sees more sense in a strategy focused on pursuing illegal immigrants who are also serious criminals. That strategy, Napolitano said, is the direction the federal government is moving, and with positive results.

“The deportation of those who have committed other crimes – violent crimes, property crimes, drug trafficking crimes – those deportations are up 20 percent over the previous year,” Napolitano said.

To ensure the bill would not be met with a veto again, Pearce said he negotiated with the governor’s deputy chief of staff for policy, Richard Bark, and deputy general counsel, Christy Myers Smith. Those discussions, Pearce said, led to the changes that appeared in the strike everything amendment.

“They had some concerns,” Pearce said. “None of them were legitimate. All I did was allow them to change this title.”

Most notably, the striker removed the word “trespass” from the bill, favoring language that Pearce said mirrors federal immigration law.

The amended version would make a person guilty of “willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document” if that person is in Arizona and also in violation of their federal immigration status. But this new state crime would be added to the trespass section of Arizona Revised Statutes, and the amendment was purely cosmetic, Pearce said.

“The language didn’t change. Not one word. We just use a federal term rather than a state term.” Pearce said. “All I did was allow them to change the title, but they can still use the trespass term.”

Pearce argues that Arizona has an inherent right to pursue federal immigration laws, and during his explanation of the bill before the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee, Pearce pointed to decisions by the 6th, 10th, 11th and 1st U.S. Circuit Courts, that he said back his premise.

In addition to arguing for the right to enforce federal immigration laws, Pearce highlighted the support his bill has received from the Arizona Police Association, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Agency, the Highway Patrol, and numerous city police chiefs and police unions.

Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Agency, testified in support of the bill during the House committee hearing March 31. He focused on the peace officers who died over the years as a result of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, saying the bill would make police officers safer and allow them to exercise the same judgement in matters of immigration enforcement that the public allows them to exercise in all other police duties.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Phoenix, pressed hardest on the details of the bill. Her questions centered mostly on how the bill might open the door for all sorts of litigation to be brought against the state or municipalities because the bill specifies that any person can bring a lawsuit against the law enforcement agencies, the state or any municipality for not pursuing these new statutes to full extent permitted by the federal law.

Pearce said fears over frivolous lawsuits were unfounded. He said similar concerns were raised without merit in 2004 when voters passed Proposition 200, which requires individuals to produce proof of citizenship before they may register to vote or apply for public benefits in Arizona.

“We don’t live in a ‘judocracy,’” Pearce said. “There is no mass attempt to sue over these policies.”

John Thomas, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of the Chiefs of Police, said the bill’s wording is still problematic. He read through about a half-dozen sections of the bill, pointing out what he saw as imprecise and inconsistent language that he said would be a liability to the state and various municipalities if not addressed.

Certain sections of the bill, Thomas said, would set up situations in which cities could be sued from multiple directions.

“These are only drafting problems,” Thomas said. “Most of them can easily be fixed.”

Pearce, though, again assured the committee that the bill was well-vetted and that he saw no need to make more changes.

Committee Chairman Rep. David Gowan, a Republican from Sierra Vista, moved to close the discussion despite pleas from members of the public who wanted to address the committee. The committee then passed the bill in a 5-2 decision.

Pearce said after the vote that all of the concerns raised during the hearing were fallacious. “The Association of the Chiefs of Police simply don’t want to enforce the laws,” he said.

Nancy Jo Merritt, who has 32 years of experience as an immigration attorney, said the bill sounds problematic on a number of points.

“Russell Pearce is clearly unaware of the reach of federal law and authority,” she said. “The state is going to have to defend this, and they’re going to lose.”

To see past efforts by the Legislature to use trespassing laws to enable local law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigrants, click here.

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