- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

Arizona lawmakers are on the cusp of approving one of the toughest measures against illegal immigration in the nation by expanding the authority of local police to check the status of individuals suspected of being in the country unlawfully.

The measure, which is expected to become law, is re-igniting passionate debate over a topic with broad implications for both political parties.

“We’re going to take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the bad guys,” said state Sen. Russell Pearce, an illegal immigration foe who dismissed suggestions that the bill would result in police roundups of innocent residents.

He said it is necessary to combat an illegal immigrant-driven crime wave that has resulted in Arizona becoming a top state for kidnappings and “the carjacking-identity theft capital of the nation.” It’s aimed at “the drug cartels, human smugglers, the gang members,” the Republican said.

Even so, critics contend the bill will legalize racial profiling and raise the specter of Arizona turning into a virtual police state.

Daniel Ortega, chairman of the National Council of La Raza board of directors, said the bill provides a prime example of why Congress needs to enact comprehensive federal immigration reform - an effort President Obama has indicated he may tackle in the coming months despite his predecessor’s resounding failure to do so.

“Proposals like this … are subjective in nature and have no checks and balances,” Mr. Ortega said. “Until Congress passes an immigration reform bill, states will continue to take matters into their own hands and communities and families will remain terrorized.”

The Arizona House approved the legislation late Tuesday on a 35-21 party-line vote, with Republicans voting in favor of the bill and Democrats against it. The state Senate had passed the measure - known as Senate Bill 1070 - in February.

Lawmakers now must resolve minor differences in the bill before sending it to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who is expected to sign it. Still, it’s unlikely the law will take effect this year, given that foes of the bill, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, have vowed to challenge it in court.

“Arizona is on the verge of enacting the most anti-immigrant legislation the country has seen in a generation,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

“We are hopeful Gov. Brewer will consult with her legal counsel, issue a veto, and spare Arizona the expense of defending an unconstitutional, unwise, and odious bill in federal courts.”

The measure requires police officers to determine an individual’s immigration status if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. Those who are unable to produce documentation of their status can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

The bill effectively bans so-called sanctuary cities by prohibiting local governments from enacting policies that direct police to ignore immigration status. Residents who suspect their community is giving illegal immigrants a pass can sue to have the law enforced.

The measure also prohibits cars from blocking traffic in front of day-laborer pickup sites.

Police reaction to the bill has been mixed. Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, has endorsed the measure, while others have raised concerns over whether the bill will overburden local police and scare off potential witnesses.

Over the past decade, Arizona has developed into the most popular entry point for border-crossers, and consequently the state has become the most aggressive in trying to deter illegal immigration.

Foes of the bill argue that only the federal government can enforce immigration laws. But the bill’s proponents note that an earlier Arizona measure requiring employers to verify the status of their workers or incur harsh sanctions withstood a federal court challenge.

The bill could also become a potential hot potato in the Republican Senate primary, in which Sen. John McCain is trying to fend off a challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. Mr. Hayworth strongly supports Senate Bill 1070, while Mr. McCain has yet to comment.

“This issue could really blow up in McCain’s face,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “If McCain is against it, then the election becomes a referendum on this bill, and that’s not a referendum McCain can win.”

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