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Arizona Senate advances proposed ballot measure to let local police make border-crossing arrests

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Posted at 12:56 PM, May 23, 2024

PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Senate approved a proposed ballot measure that would ask voters in November to make it a state crime for noncitizens to enter the state through Mexico at any location other than a port of entry.

The proposal approved Wednesday on a 16-13 party-line vote would draw Arizona directly into immigration enforcement by letting state and local police arrest people crossing the border without authorization and giving state judges the power to order people convicted of the offense to return to their country of origin. The measure, similar to a Texas law that has been put on hold by a federal appeals court while it is being challenged, now advances to the Republican-controlled Arizona House. If approved by the full Legislature, the measure would bypass Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who had vetoed a similar proposal two months ago, and instead would be sent to the Nov. 5 ballot for voters to decide.

Before the vote was taken, a handful of immigrant rights supporters yelled, “Stop the hate, stop the hate,” interrupting the debate and profanely calling supporters of the measure racists before the advocates walked out of the chamber.

While federal law already prohibits the unauthorized entry of migrants into the U.S., proponents say the measure is needed because the federal government hasn’t done enough to stop people from crossing illegally over Arizona’s porous border with Mexico. They also said some people who enter Arizona without authorization commit identity theft and take advantage of public benefits.

“We are being invaded,” said Republican Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek. Opponents say the proposal would hurt Arizona’s reputation in the business world, carry huge unfunded costs for law enforcement agencies that don’t have experience in enforcing immigration law, and lead to racial profiling of immigrants, legal residents and U.S. citizens.

“This bill is going to create all sorts of chaos,” said Democratic Sen. Catherine Miranda of Phoenix. Under the proposal, a first-time conviction of the border-crossing provision would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, and state judges could order people to return to their country of origin after completing a term of incarceration, though they also would have the power to dismiss a pending charge if the person agrees to return to their home country.

Last week, the proposal stalled over an exception to the illegal crossing provision for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that shields thousands of young people from deportation.

Under an earlier version of the proposal, DACA recipients would have been subject to prosecution if those protections from deportation were to be cancelled or a court deemed them unlawful, raising objections from a key Republican lawmaker who said the recipients shouldn’t face such legal jeopardy.

On Wednesday, the provision dealing with DACA recipients was cut altogether from the proposal. Republican Sen. Ken Bennett of Prescott, who voted for the measure after insisting that the DACA provision be removed, said language also was added to clarify that the law doesn’t apply to people who illegally entered Arizona before enforcement starts on the proposed ballot measure.

“I know this is not perfect, but this is a vast improvement of where it was a week ago,” Bennett said.

Supporters of the proposed ballot measure waved off concerns about racial profiling, saying local officers would still have to develop probable cause to arrest people who enter the country in between the ports of entry.

The backers also say the proposal is focused on only the state's border region and -- unlike Arizona’s landmark 2010 immigration law -- doesn’t target people throughout the state. Opponents point out the proposal doesn’t contain any geographical limitations on where it can be enforced. After the Senate approved the measure, Hobbs issued a statement denouncing the proposal. “Business leaders, border law enforcement, and bipartisan local leaders throughout the state who oppose this bill know it will not make us safer, instead it will demonize our communities and lead to racial profiling,” Hobbs said.

The ballot proposal contains other proposal provisions that aren’t included in the Texas measure, such as making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for selling fentanyl that leads to a person’s death. This isn’t the first time Republican lawmakers in Arizona have tried to criminalize migrants who aren’t authorized to be in the United States.

When passing its landmark 2010 immigration bill, the Arizona Legislature considered expanding the state’s trespassing law to criminalize the presence of immigrants and impose criminal penalties. But the trespassing language was removed and replaced with a requirement that officers, while enforcing other laws, question people’s immigration status if they are believed to be in the country illegally.

The questioning requirement was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court despite the racial profiling concerns of critics, but courts barred enforcement of other sections of the law.