Slaying of Arizona Rancher Fuels Debate Over Proposed Anti-Immigrant Bill

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce - Photo: www.JoseMunozPhotos.com

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce. (Photo: www.JoseMunozPhotos.com)

PHOENIX, Arizona — The killing of an Arizona rancher, allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant on the U.S.-Mexico border, has enraged supporters of a bill making its way through the Arizona legislature that would allow local police to arrest migrants without proper documentation simply for being in the state illegally.

“He didn’t deserve to die like that,” said Anna Gaines about the murder last Saturday of Robert Krentz, 58.  “We need this bill, we cannot have any more deaths like this.”

The legislation would make Arizona the first state in the nation to criminalize undocumented immigrants.  Under the current version police would be able to arrest anyone who is illegally in the state for not carrying an alien registration document. The original version would have had police arrest the undocumented for trespassing on state lands.

On Wednesday, supporters of SB 1070 wore black ribbons on their shirts in remembrance of Krentz as they attended a hearing on the bill by the Committee on Military Affairs and Public Safety.

“Enough is enough. Rob Krentz’s death it’s just one more example of government’s failure to stand for it’s citizens and the rule of law and protects citizens while we continue to harbor criminals and those that violate our sovereignty in our borders,” said Sen.  Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) author of the bill.

SB 1070 passed in the committee by a 5-2 vote. But not without raising the eyebrows from many critics.

During the hearing on Wednesday Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, (D-Phoenix) repeatedly questioned the impact the bill could have on people who are legally in the country but who may not have proper documentation at the time of their arrest or those who carry a tourist or a student visa.

“I’m concerned about people being deprived of their liberty,” she said citing the recent case of a Mexican tourist who was wrongfully detained by police because they believe he was undocumented.

John Thomas a lobbyist from the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP) said the bill will be a burden for small police departments with few resources for legal representation.

“You have provisions that would allow anybody to bring a lawsuit against a police department in Arizona if they feel that they’re limiting or restricting the enforcement of immigration laws,” said Thomas who is also an attorney.

The penalties could range from $1,000 to $5,000 per day from the date the suit was filed.

“If you have a victim to a crime or a witness to a crime they might not come forth to law-enforcement because they are concerned that they’ll have their immigration status checked and they could be taken out of the country, “ he said.

Thomas emphasized that if  a police officer makes a decision not to ask the immigration status of a victim, the officer might open up his or her department to legal challenges.

“They’re going to be open to lawsuits for racial profiling and lawsuits if it’s felt that they’re restricting enforcement of the law,” he said.

But the bill’s author, Sen. Pearce said this is just a way to keep police departments from passing regulations to prevent officers from enforcing the law.

“What if I have a shooting in the middle of Phoenix with the MS 13 gang, all of them illegals from El Salvador, one is a victim, one is a witness, one is a suspect. Am I not to ask questions?” said Pearce. “You can’t specifically exclude anybody on this bill, this has to be a discretion made on practicable (sic) by the officer at the scene, at the time.”

Pearce emphasized this is an effort to “take the handcuffs off law-enforcement.”

Members of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) echoed Pearce’s comments in support of the bill. A number of Arizona sheriffs and police unions support the bill.  Pearce also said the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -which advocates for restricting the number of immigrants entering the country- is supporting the bill.

Testimony against the bill came from organizations including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, which represents over 90 cities in the state. The Border Action Network has turned over 20,000 postcards to Republican governor Jan Brewer to ask her to oppose the bill.

Religious groups also raised concerns about some aspects of SB 1070 that would result in fines for anyone who “harbors” or “conceals” undocumented immigrants.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference said there’s the potential that those provisions could affect homeless shelters, churches, humanitarian workers and even family members of undocumented immigrants.

“They took the trespassing provisions out, but the substance is the same,” said Johnson. “They just created a new state crime for someone who is just here unlawfully.”

SB1070, once on the legislative fast track, now faces a series of votes in the House of Representatives. Amendments made to the bill will force it to go through another vote in the Senate as well.

Despite the delays, some legislators believe prospects for the bill are good.

“In my border area people want security. I come from the same area that the rancher was killed in Saturday and I’m telling you now they’re all hammering and clamoring for this right now,” said Rep. David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista).

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