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Kavanagh bill would prevent cities from counting illegal immigrants

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A veteran state lawmaker wants to block communities trying to boost their revenues through a special interim census from counting residents who are not in this country legally.

The legislation crafted by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would allow cities, towns and counties to count only those who are U.S. citizens, nationals of U.S. territories, or are legally admitted to the United States.

More to the point, SB1044 would forbid counting anyone who is an illegal immigrant.

Kavanagh’s move comes as several Arizona cities are conducting mid-decade counts to get a more accurate figure of how many people are present. That can have immediate financial consequences as some state dollars are doled out to communities based on population. And, there’s a lot of money involved.

This past budget year the state distributed nearly $609 million in “urban revenue sharing.” State transportation dollars also are allocated to communities at least in part based on population.

In general, the larger the community, the bigger the slice.

How many people are here illegally remains a guess at best.

Pew Hispanic estimated there are 11.3 million undocumented individuals in the country. And its most recent figures for Arizona put the number at about 300,000.

Where they are within the state, however, is one of those unknowns that Kavanagh hopes to determine through his legislation.

The question remains, though, whether it’s fair to cut aid based on whether someone who is living in a city or town is legally present.

Camp Verde Town Manager Russ Martin said his community is not bothering with a special census, figuring the additional dollars would not justify the cost. But he said it is important to get an accurate count of everyone.

“Every person or tourist or whomever is in your town for any reason, and for any length of time, utilizes town services,” he said.

Martin said the taxes collected, including state shared revenues “are in place to ensure the fairest distribution of those costs amongst all of those populations.”

Kavanagh, whose wife, Linda, is the mayor of Fountain Hills, sees the issue from a different perspective.

“Why should the people in Fountain Hills get less state-shared revenue because there are more illegal immigrants in Phoenix?” he asked.

Nor is he dissuaded by arguments that communities have to provide services to all in their borders, here legally or not.

“If a city that has that problem wants to perhaps pressure the federal government to do their job and remove these people, then this will encourage that,” Kavanagh said.

He conceded there are flaws to the plan.

One is that, no matter what happens in a mid-decade tally, the Census Bureau’s official decennial count will include all residents, legal or not. So the new revenue sharing figures after 2020 would be reset based on total population.

Then there’s the simple question of why anyone would admit to someone who shows up at the door there are people present who are not here legally. But Kavanagh said his 20 years as a police officer suggests otherwise.

“People said, ‘What criminal in their right mind would incriminate themselves after you read them Miranda (rights)?’” he said. “They do it every day.”

Kavanagh’s measure, if approved, could affect more than just how the state is divided up among its 30 legislative districts.

He conceded that Arizona might not get another congressional seat if it does not count its undocumented population. But Kavanagh said that doesn’t bother him.

“We don’t deserve a congressman, no state deserves a congressman, based upon numbers of illegal immigrants,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of principle.”

There also could be political implications, with legislative district boundaries now drawn based on total population, legal and otherwise. And while that once-a-decade process is now governed by figures from the Census Bureau, which does not ask legal status, Kavanagh hopes his measure, if approved, pushes the federal agency in that direction.

Kavanagh may get some legal help in that contention: The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a case out of Texas which seeks a ruling that states can consider only eligible voters in drawing districts. That would eliminate not only those who are undocumented but also could mean that prisoners and even minors did not count.

Kavanagh, however, does not seek to go quite that far.

“They’re here legally,” he said. “I don’t believe that, in any way, should we legally recognize people here illegally or apportion any benefits or representative rights based on illegal presence.”

— Bill Helm of Verde News contributed to this story.

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