PHOENIX, Arizona — A wave of bills aimed at criminalizing undocumented immigrants in Arizona have failed in the state legislature. Divisive budget discussions and a split in the Republican Party, which holds the majority in the legislature, have been cited as reasons for the defeats. But local human rights activists, who organized opposition to the bills, are taking some of the credit as well.
Arizona has been called a “laboratory for anti-immigrant laws” for the rest of the nation. In 2007, the state adopted one of the country’s toughest employer sanctions laws for companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor.
But this year saw the failure of some 27 bills aimed at clamping down on immigrants. “We did extremely well this year, dealing with the anti-immigrant legislation, it’s the most successful year we had,” said Democratic legislator Ben Miranda, who voted against the proposals.
He credits the defeat, in part, to the split between Republican legislators and Gov. Jan Brewer over budget issues.
As divisive budget discussions were coming to an end a flood of anti-immigration bills were introduced, with Republican State Sen. Russell Pearce at the helm of the effort.
Pearce introduced 17 of the bills, ranging from a proposal to eliminate what he called “sanctuary policies” that keep local police from inquiring about a person’s immigration status to a measure requiring school districts to ask their students about their immigration status.
A bill that attracted a lot of attention —HB 2280, introduced in the House by Republican John Kavanagh— would have made Arizona the first state in the nation to criminalize the very presence of undocumented immigrants. The legislation would have made it a misdemeanor to trespass on state lands, allowing local police to arrest anyone illegally in the country.
Opponents said the legislation would have led to racial profiling by law-enforcement and would have made immigrants less willing to report crimes of which they were the victims.
Supporters argued during several committee hearings that illegal immigration has led to the deaths of several police officers and a spike in violence and kidnappings connected to human smuggling in a state that shares a border with Mexico.
The bill was approved by the Senate, but failed in the House. A crucial factor in its defeat was the number of Republican legislators who did not vote on the measure.
“Some people support law breakers over law keepers,” said Pearce to the Associated Press. “How many more officers are we going to have killed?”
Pearce couldn’t be reached for this report, but he told The A.P. that he plans to take the bill to Arizona voters by gathering signatures to put it on the ballot.
Republican Representative Nancy Barto was one of the legislators who “voted against the bill by not voting,” in her own words. She said there was a better proposal that would have ruled out “sanctuary policies” but was killed in the Senate.
“We need to deal with this issue carefully, and not cause more work for local law enforcement that they can handle rightfully. My biggest concern is over- extending through a state mandate the duties of local law enforcement,” said Barto.
Barto, who in the past supported the employer sanctions law and a bill to keep undocumented people from getting business licenses, said she got several e-mails from her constituents voicing opposition.
Anna Gaines, a member of American Citizens United –a local group that opposes illegal immigration– said several Republican legislators like Barto would lose political support for failing to show up to vote.
“It’s OK to be compassionate for others, but what about some compassion for the Americans who are unemployed and cannot go anywhere else to look for help,” she said.
This is the second year in a row that Arizona has failed to enact anti-immigration legislation. Last year, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed proposals that would have expanded the role of local police in immigration enforcement.
But this year, with a Republican governor and both houses of the legislature under GOP control, some see a growing divide on the Republican party over how to deal with the illegal immigration question.
“Republicans are losing the tolerance for this anti-immigrant rhetoric and not seeing the practicality of it. We have one of the biggest budget deficits in the country, we can’t be wasting time setting up programs in which childrens’ immigration status needs to be checked,” said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network (BAN), a human rights group based in Tucson.
Allen said organizing and teaching immigrants to use the Internet were essential this time around in making a difference against “hateful legislation.”
Over a period of three weeks BAN organized Arizona residents to send e-mails to their representatives expressing their opposition to the bills. Allen reported they sent 40,000 e-mails.
“That is an unprecedented response from residents,” she said. “We’re actively working to put the technology and tools in the hands of immigrant families and Arizona residents so we can shift the monopoly of anti-immigrant groups around technology and talking with legislators.”
Allen said that during the next session, which will start in January 2010, they plan to counterattack anti-immigrant bills by pushing for legislation that is positive and inclusive of immigrants.
“Arizona would be able to pull through the (economic) crisis if we look at how we can integrate immigrant families into the economy,” she said.