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Arizona bill would make shooting and killing migrants on property legal

A Democrat Latina lawmaker opposed to the legislation said it would "allow open season on migrants."

Under a bill advancing in the Arizona Legislature, a property owner would be able to kill or threaten to kill people who cross their property to illegally enter the U.S.

Although the bill does not mention immigrants, its sponsor, Republican Rep. Justin Heap, said in a committee hearing that his bill was intended to close a loophole to assist ranchers who may witness someone trespassing any section of their land, not just within a mile of their home.

The bill would modify the state's existing Castle Doctrine, which allows home and property owners to threaten to use deadly force to stop someone from criminally trespassing into or on their property. They can use deadly force only to defend themselves or another person. The law considers property to be structures for residency, occupied or not.

The proposal has drawn fierce opposition in the state, where in the past hard-line immigration laws have galvanized opponents, particularly Latinos, to beat back the laws and help erode the Republican grip in the state.

It comes as an Arizona rancher, George Kelly, faces trial next month on second-degree murder charges in the January 2023 shooting death of Gabriel Cuen-Butimea, who had entered the country illegally and was found dead on Kelly's property. Kelly has pleaded not guilty and said he only fired warning shots.

Rep. Analise Ortiz, a Phoenix-area Democrat, called the bill disgusting and inhumane and would allow "open season on migrants".

"It's terrifying. It would give people free rein to execute somebody and it would broaden extrajudicial killings," Ortiz told NBC News. "This is part of a broader anti-immigrant movement that we've seen coming from the right, which aims to dehumanize and vilify people who are coming to this country seeking asylum."

NBC News has reached out to Heap's office.

Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spokesperson Abhi Rahman said the approval of the Arizona bill would mean the GOP is "one step closer to legalizing murder."

"Make no mistake, this bill encourages Arizonians to shoot first and ask questions later," he said.

Ortiz said she is certain that Gov. Katie Hobbs would veto the bill if it is approved by the Senate.

Hobbs has said she would veto a bill approved by Arizona lawmakers that would allow state police to arrest people who enter the country illegally. The bill is similar to one in Texas that was scheduled to go into effect next month but that was blocked by a federal court on Thursday.

NBC News has reached out to Hobbs.

In January, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott drew backlash when he said Texas wasn’t wasn't shooting people who cross the border illegally because Biden would charge state officials with murder.

The Tucson, Arizona, Customs and Border Patrol sector has seen a 149.6% jump in migrant encounters, which includes people crossing legally and those quickly expelled, this January over January 2023, according to CBP statistics. The crossings have risen in Arizona, while dropping in other sectors.

President Joe Biden was scheduled to visit the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, making a stop in Brownsville, Texas, where migrant arrivals have eased. Former President Donald Trump also planned to be in Texas on Thursday, but was to be in Eagle Pass, where Texas has taken over a state park and has been staging its own immigration enforcement.

Biden is going on the offensive on immigration as polls show voters saying Trump would better secure the border and as Democratic governors have complained about a lack of resources to house and feed hundreds of thousands of migrants transferred to their cities.

Biden planned to hammer Republicans for killing a bipartisan border bill at Trump's urging.

Ortiz said Hobbs has made clear her frustration with the federal government over its lack of action on immigration and has taken what action her authority allows, such as sending National Guard to help at ports of entry.

The Arizona bill is likely to become a focal point in this year's elections.

Ortiz said Arizona has had to fight other state anti-immigration bills, including SB1070, that gave police authority to question people about their citizenship and immigration status and was partially struck down by the Supreme Court.

Latinos helped flip the longtime red state for Biden in 2020, with 74% of Hispanics who voted choosing Biden.

"The far right woke up a sleeping giant in the Latino communities and we have been awake. We have been organizing. We have been educated on policy and we have run for office and we are the ones sitting in these seats and activating our communities," Ortiz said.

"So if Republicans think they can play the same old tricks they played in 2011, they are sorely mistaken. Our Latino community will come out in force," she said.