Intense Debate, Rising Fear as Arizona Immigration Enforcement Bill Heads to Final Vote

Attorney Dave Selden - Photo: Alicia Perrone

Attorney Dave Selden, speaking in front of the State capital, said the bill would result in lawsuits. (Photo: Alicia Perrone)

PHOENIX, Arizona –At a hair salon in one of this city’s immigrant neighborhoods the  conversation these days is about one thing and one thing only: a proposed new state law that would allow local police to arrest anyone on “reasonable suspicion” until they can prove they’re legally in the country.

“If there’s a robbery here…do you think we will call the police? They’ll arrest us as well,” said Maria, one of the undocumented workers at the salon. “It’s like calling to tell them to come pick you up.”

SB 1070, known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act,” also includes a number of provisions that go beyond authorizing the arrest of undocumented immigrants. The bill targets day laborers by making it a crime to look for work on the street, and it would financially penalize anyone who harbors or transports an undocumented immigrant, including family members.

The Arizona Senate is expected to pass the legislation on Monday, at which point it will be sent to the desk of Governor Jan Brewer. The Governor, a Republican, has five days to sign the bill or veto it. If she signs it, it will make Arizona the first state in the nation to criminalize being undocumented.

It’s widely anticipated that Brewer will sign the bill into law, as she faces an election challenge this fall from Republican conservatives. But she has also been receiving calls from immigration advocates across the country, calling for a veto.  A demonstration against the bill is planned for Tuesday in Phoenix, supported by a coalition of national organizations.

The legislation represents the culmination of a decade-long attempt by conservative Republicans to control the migration of people over the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona. It could have far reaching influence, as the state has a reputation as a testing ground for immigration enforcement bills that are later reproduced in other parts of the country.

Listen to Valeria Fernandez speaking about the proposed bill on PRI’s The World

The bill is, “a misguided effort at state immigration regulation and enforcement,”  said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in a letter to Brewer.

Should the bill become law, MALDEF and other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are expected to challenge it in court.  “Because it is dangerous public policy and is likely illegal,” wrote Saenz,  “costly legal action is an inevitable outcome of enacting such a proposal.”

“This bill is so far-reaching that many U.S. citizens, Native Americans, and lawful residents will predictably be swept up in its application,” said Dan Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona. “The enforcement provisions rewrite the Constitution by turning the presumption of innocence on its head.”

“We have permitted Arizona to be the engine for the creation of laws and politicians that will impact every person living in this country,” said attorney Isabel Garcia, a co-director of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a human rights group in Tucson.

Pastor Glenn Jenks - (Photo: Alicia Perrone)

Pastor Glenn Jenks from the Valley Interfaith Network (VIP) speaks against bill. (Photo: Alicia Perrone)

Opponents of the bill say it would hurt community policing–because it doesn’t include protections for undocumented immigrants who are victims or witnesses of a crime.

“This bill increases fear, decreases the ability of police to secure communities and does nothing to address the real issues that face our border community,” said State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, (D–Phoenix) who has opposed the legislation.

Law-enforcement officials in Arizona are divided over the bill.

Police unions and the controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have come out in support of the measure.

Arpaio–who faces a federal investigation of alleged racial profiling for conducting sweeps in Latino neighborhoods to arrest undocumented immigrants–issued a press release as he announced the arrest of 30 undocumented immigrants, saying that he is ready to enforce the proposed law.

And Mark Spencer, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) argued the bill is incorrectly presented as a mandate to turn police into immigration agents, when in reality it just gives them more freedom to arrest criminals that happen to be in the country illegally.

But some law-enforcement agencies, including the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, warned that the proposed law would put them in a difficult position.

On one hand, police departments could be subject to lawsuits if they don’t enforce the new law–and would incur fines of between $1,000 to $5,000 for each incident.  On the other hand, enforcement of the new law could lead to racial profiling lawsuits against local police agencies.

The measure would be especially hard on police departments in rural areas and small communities where resources are limited.

“The federal government has a responsibility to protect the border. I can’t protect the borders from the city of Tolleson. It’s too far away,” said Larry Rodriguez, Tolleson’s Police chief, whose city of 5,000 mostly Latino inhabitants is adjacent to Phoenix.

Sheridan Bailey - Photo: Alicia Perrone

Sheridan Bailey, a business owner, said the new legislation would be bad for Arizona's business interests. (Photo: Alicia Perrone)

Religious and business leaders across the state have also spoken out against the bill.

“It creates an underclass of people that can’t report crimes to the police. If their daughter is raped they can’t call the police, if a wife is being battered by her husband she can’t call for help, it creates a climate of terror and fear at all levels,” said Pastor Glenn Jenks, a member of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), a coalition of churches, unions and human rights groups.

A group of business owners who oppose the bill has has raised concerns that the new law will not only cause undocumented immigrants leave the state, but will cause their families to leave as well, taking with them sales revenue and property taxes.

“They’re not going to tell me who I can marry or who can be my friend,” said Norma Tolsa-Garcia, a U.S. Citizen who is married to an undocumented immigrant and is now considering leaving Arizona. “They need to rethink this. Those people who come here to work hard, they are the ones building houses, and companies, bringing food to the markets.”

Sheridan Bailey, a co-founder and President, Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform said it would project a negative image of the state as place to do business.

But the bill has plenty of supporters, many of whom are frustrated by the lack of federal action to secure the border and pass comprehensive immigration reform.

“The federal government is responsible for protecting the integrity of our borders and they’re not doing a thing. So now the state of Arizona steps up and that’s a great thing,” said Bill Lester, 62, a resident of Mesa who attended a recent Tea Party event in Tempe, Arizona.

The bill gained momentum after the tragic murder of rancher Robert Krentz on the Arizona border with Mexico on March 27th.

“Rob Krentz is just one example of government’s failure to stand for its citizens and the rule of law, while we continue to cuddle criminals and those that violate our sovereignty,” said State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), the bill’s sponsor.

Krentz’s death, which is still under investigation, has been attributed to drug cartels and has prompted a call for increased border security by a number of ranchers’ associations along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yet the ranchers have remained neutral on the legislation.

“This is a law that will apply elsewhere in the state, and that’s not where the problem is. The problem is at the border,” said Patrick Bray, deputy director of government affairs for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

Many residents are concerned about what the proposed law would do to the already embattled social fabric of Arizona.

“It fans the flame of division between Anglos and Hispanics. It even gives that the blessing of a law, a law that authorizes racism,” said Pastor Jenks.

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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.