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Ariz. close to tougher immigration law

Arizona might soon have a law that bolsters its reputation as the nation's leader in controversial immigration policy.
/ Source: The New York Times

While pressure increases on the Obama administration for a long-anticipated and much-promised overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, Arizona is moving ahead with anti-illegal-immigrant legislation widely considered among the most stringent in the states.

The legislation was approved by the state’s House of Representatives on Tuesday and is heading back to the Senate, which is expected to pass it. Then it will arrive at the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican facing an election challenge who is also expected to sign the bill. It would give the police broad power under state law to check the legal status of people they reasonably suspect are illegal immigrants.

The police would be authorized to arrest immigrants unable to show documents allowing them to be in the country and it would leave drivers open to sanctions in some cases for knowingly transporting an illegal immigrant, even a relative. It expressly forbids cities from adopting so-called “sanctuary” policies that restrict the police and public workers from immigration enforcement, though it was a matter of debate if any cities have such policies.

The bill, hotly debated by police, business and faith groups, represents a step back from an earlier proposal that would have broadened the state’s trespassing law to encompass being in the state illegally.

But advocates for immigrants nevertheless described it as a recipe for racial profiling that is ripe for costly constitutional challenges and par for the course in a border state where debate over immigration is as heated as the desert sun.

It is “the most anti-immigrant legislation the country has seen in a generation,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

“Arizona has long been a laboratory for anti-immigrant experimentation, and its demagogue leaders have become folk heroes for white supremacists throughout the United States, but this bill ushers in a new chapter of disgrace for the state,” he said.

Backers worry of 'new tsunami'
Supporters of the bill, which included a handful of Republicans who doubted its effectiveness but voted for it anyway, said it reflected frustration with a federal government they believe has fallen short of both securing the border — more people and drugs cross illegally into the United States through Arizona than any other state — and following through on revamping immigration law.

State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican, noted that the flow of illegal immigration may have slowed during the economic downturn. But the problem remained a top concern of his constituents, he said, and the bill would give the police additional tools to root out people without authorization to be in the country.

“So when the new tsunami of illegal immigration comes we will be ready for them,” he added.

The chief sponsor of the legislation, Senator Russell Pearce, said in an interview he hoped the legislation, and other get-tough measures, would send the message to illegal immigrants that they were not welcome in Arizona.

“That absolutely is what we are doing here,” he said.

The bill also serves as a reminder that, for all the back and forth in Washington, the states continue sewing a patchwork of legislation intended to answer local demands to confront illegal immigration.

Since an effort to reform federal immigration law collapsed in 2007, immigration-related bills in the states have surged, with more immigration bills than ever posted last year, ranging from efforts to restrict public services to encouraging more local police cooperation with federal authorities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arizonan heads homeland security
If the bill was a rebuke to the Obama administration, it is also a tweak of sorts to Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor who is now secretary of homeland security and a key advisor to the administration on immigration.

Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, had a contentious relationship with the Republican sponsors of the bill and had vetoed similar legislation as governor.

Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for her, declined to comment directly on the merits of the bill but defended federal enforcement of immigration law and border security. He said the government focused on “smart, effective immigration enforcement” focused on removing illegal immigrants who commit crimes and has bolstered border security.

“DHS has replaced old policies that merely looked tough with new policies that remove convicted criminals and make our streets safer,” he said, adding, “we look forward to working with Congress to update and modernize our nation’s underlying immigration laws.”

Immigration remains a potent issue in the state; during debate over the bill Tuesday a few legislators invoked the killing of a rancher at the border that the police theorize was smuggling-related.

Ms. Brewer’s campaign Web site features pictures of razor wire on a border fence, and she has sought to play up her toughness on immigration as she prepares for a challenge to a full term from candidates considered to be to the right of her.

A spokesman for Ms. Brewer said she would not take a position until the bill arrives on her desk.

This article, "Arizona Lawmakers Back Strict Immigration Bill," first appeared in the New York Times.