State lawmakers took the first step late Tuesday to enact new laws designed to make life more difficult for -- and in some cases, incarcerate -- those in this country illegally.
But the 7-6 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee came after two of the nine Republicans on the panel broke with their party and refused to go along. That could mean an uncertain future for SB 1611 when it goes to the full Senate.
The vote came after Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he sees SB 1611 as simply adding some additional teeth to a 2004 voter-approved measure denying public benefits to illegal immigrants. He said various efforts in the interim, including interpretations of that 2004 law by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, limited the scope.
He said this legislation will also strengthen laws that still allow those not here legally to benefit.
"If we're going to stop this invasion -- and it is an invasion -- you're going to have to stop rewarding people for breaking those laws,'' Pearce said. "I make no apology for demanding the taxpayers be protected.''
He specifically defended provisions that would deny illegal immigrants admission to state universities and community colleges.
"You can't keep incentivizing people to break our laws with a wink and a nod and think you're going to have any effect on securing that border,'' he said.
But Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said that presumes the students broke the law in the first place. She said many of them were brought to this country as children by their parents, through no fault of their own.
Pearce said he has met many of these students and was impressed by them -- but not enough to change his mind about opening the doors to state-funded schools.
He pointed out it is not only illegal to enter this country illegally but also illegal to remain here. Pearce said that, at some point, these youngsters grew up enough to become aware that they are in the United States without legal authorization.
Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, one of the Republicans who refused to go along, said he found various flaws with the measure, which Pearce conceded was hastily drafted late last week. But Crandall said one overriding concern is how some of the requirements, like proving legal presence to operate a vehicle, will affect tourism.
"I don't want people flying in for the big golf tournament or the auto auction and have to bring their birth certificate with them,'' he said.
Pearce, however, said the state needs to step in because the federal government "is complicit in the damage and the destruction of this nation'' in failing to secure the border.
"Once they step one foot across that border, they're in Arizona,'' Pearce continued. "Now it becomes my obligation to protect the citizens of the state.''
Sinema had other problems with the proposal. She expressed concern that this new version making all "public benefits'' off limits to illegal immigrants has no definition of exactly what that includes.
"It could impact people who are seeking shelter from domestic violence,'' she said.
Pearce, however, said he doesn't share her concerns. He said that U.S. citizens are being turned away from these often-overcrowded shelters.
Sinema shot back that is because of the lack of funding.
Less clear is whether illegal immigrants could still get library cards.
Pearce refused to respond to questions about that. Instead, he said lawmakers should look at the broader public policy SB 1611 promotes.
"If you're in the country illegally you don't have the right to public benefits,'' he said. "It's called theft.''
The proposal does not make public schools off limits to illegal immigrants, at least not officially. Instead, it spells out that parents must provide some proof of the student's legal presence in this country, though failure to do so does not deny admission.
What it would do, however, is trigger a requirement for the school to notify law enforcement that the parent did not provide that proof.
Other provisions include:
- Making it a crime for an illegal immigrant to drive in Arizona, with the vehicle subject to seizure and forfeiture;
- Requiring companies to use the federal E-Verify program to check the legal status of new employees or be put out of business;
- Imposing a minimum 180-day prison term on those convicted of taking someone else's identity, whether a real or fictitious person, for the purpose of getting a job;
- Allowing the state to decide what constitutes proof of citizenship for purposes of free health care, not the standards set up by the federal Medicaid program;
- Barring illegal immigrants from public housing and evicting all residents if they allow someone not in this country legally to remain.