House Rejects Immigration Enforcement Bill

PHOENIX – With many members absent, the Arizona House early Wednesday defeated a bill to criminalize the presence of all illegal immigrants in the state and draw local police officers deeper into the fight against illegal immigration.

The House voted 26-15 for the bill Wednesday morning, but the “yes” votes were five short of the 31 needed for passage by the 60-member chamber. The Senate approved the bill 16-11 earlier Wednesday morning.

The bill would have made Arizona the only state to criminalize the presence of illegal immigrants through an expansion of its trespassing law.

The proposal also would have prohibited cities and counties from limiting police officers in enforcing federal immigration law and require officers to try to determine people’s immigration status when questions arise about their presence in the country. Nineteen representatives missed the vote, which took place near the end of an overnight session as some lawmakers left the Capitol because of the approaching end to their 2009 session. Though absenteeism likely was a factor in the bill’s defeat, Pearce said he wasn’t surprised that the measure failed in the House.

“Some people support law breakers over law keepers,” he said. “How many more officers are we going to have killed?”

He said he would keep trying to get the bill to become law and might gather signatures to take it to the ballot.

Although immigration has long been considered the sole responsibility of the federal government, advocates for tougher border enforcement have said for several years that local authorities could help lessen border woes in Arizona, the busiest illegal entry point into the United States. The practical effect of such a new law wasn’t clear.

Immigrant rights advocates predicted it would lead to racial profiling that would target Latinos who are U.S. citizens. Supporters say local officers enforcing an expanded trespassing law would provide a second layer of enforcement to catch immigrants who slip past federal agents and point out that officers would still need probable cause to believe that people violated the law before they could arrest them.

Many police bosses in Arizona have resisted past efforts to have local officers confront border woes, saying it would detract from investigations of crime in their communities and jeopardize the trust they have built in immigrant communities.

The Legislature’s defeat of the measure was the third time since 2006 that lawmakers have considered a trespassing expansion aimed at illegal immigrants. In 2006, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed two bills with similar trespassing provisions. The Democratic governor had said she opposed automatically turning all immigrants who sneaked into the state into criminals.

Illegal immigrants account for an estimated 500,000 people in Arizona’s 6.5 million population. Under the trespassing proposal, a first offense would be a top-tier misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Subsequent violations would be a felony that would carry a penalty of up to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Agencies arresting first-time offenders would have the option of prosecuting them or turning them over to federal authorities.

The proposal also would let a person file a lawsuit to challenge officials who adopt policies that limit full enforcement of federal immigration law. If a judge decides a city or county is in violation, the court would be required to order them to pay a civil penalty up to $5,000 for each day the policy remains in effect.

Currently, most of Arizona’s immigration enforcement is done by federal authorities at the border and in the state’s interior. A few police agencies enforce a state immigrant smuggling law and have officers with special training in federal immigration law.