Conservative Lawmakers Push Anti-Immigrant Legislation in Arizona

PHOENIX, Arizona — While hopes for Congressional action on immigration policy are fading, a new wave of legislation aimed at undocumented immigrants is gaining momentum in the Arizona State Legislature. Republican lawmakers are pushing for laws that would allow police to arrest undocumented migrants for “trespassing” in the state or for standing on a sidewalk to look for work.

State Sen. Russell Pearce. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

State Sen. Russell Pearce. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Arizona already has some of the toughest anti-immigrant laws in the nation, but legislators argue additional laws are needed in the absence of federal action on immigration policy.

Mesa Sen. Russell Pearce is behind the push. His “Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (SB 1070) would make it a misdemeanor to be in the state without immigration documents. A person arrested twice under the bill could be charged with a felony.

The bill also includes a provisions against “sanctuary polices,” that would prevent any government agency or municipality from limiting immigration enforcement. It also includes penalties for those who harbor, transport or help an undocumented immigrant.

“Enough is enough. We’re a nation of laws. I don’t violate the laws from other countries,” said Pearce, who is confident he will have the support of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.

During her State of the State speech, Brewer said she would be working with Pearce to “enhance the existing penalties for any criminal alien who returns to our state.”

Yet similar versions of the bill failed during the previous session.

“I think last year it got lost in the shuffle of the budget discussions, this year we have more time and it’s already on the fast track,” said Rep. John Kavanagh from Fountain Hills. The bill has already cleared three committees.

Kavanagh has also introduced bills aimed at undocumented immigrants. One of them targets day laborers by making it illegal to stand on the street for the purpose of looking for work.

As Arizona looks to tighten its budget, supporters of these proposals argue they will help save taxpayers’ money.

“Illegals and their children that might be born here are a phenomenal drain on government services, particularly health care,” Kavanagh said.

Pro-immigrant advocates and some legislators are worried about the impact the legislation could have on immigrant families that include both U.S. citizens and undocumented migrants.

“It’s not like we don’t have enough fear in the community already, of children being afraid that if their parents go to the grocery store they would never come back,” said Rev. Liana Rowe of the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix.

Phoenix Democratic Rep. Martha Garcia said there are questions about the constitutionality of the bills.

“Why are we doing this in Arizona when it’s a federal issue? Something needs to happen at the federal level,” she added.

Garcia has witnessed the negative impact of anti-immigrant laws on some of her constituents in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Maryvale. In particular, a new law requiring state employees to report undocumented immigrants who apply for health services is deterring immigrant parents from seeking medical care for their U.S.-born children.

The cost has also been economic, Garcia said.

“A lot of our immigrant population has moved to a friendlier state or has gone back to Mexico, which means that our tax base isn’t what it used to be. You just lost a powerful tax base,” she said.

Supporters of stiffer penalties argue that migrants leaving the state is a sign that Arizona’s laws are working.

Some observers say that the legislative push is part of a last-minute effort to regulate immigration in this border state before the federal government tackles immigration reform.

But others disagree.

“We are not passing laws in Arizona to affect federal legislation, we are passing laws because the federal authorities have dropped the ball,” said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant to the Maricopa County Attorney.

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AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.