Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Arizona’s Proposition 200 qualified for the November ballot late Monday, setting the stage for a state and national debate on illegal immigrants and their access to public services.

The initiative, which would require proof of citizenship before voting or receiving nonfederal welfare benefits, collected 152,177 valid signatures, about 30,000 more than needed to secure a spot on the ballot, according to Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer.

The measure is expected to become a catalyst for a national debate on the tide of illegal immigrants pouring into the Southwest from Mexico and Central America. Even before qualifying, Proposition 200 had become a staple of some talk-radio stations and the focus of national media attention.

“This is a hot, hot, hot issue,” said Kathy McKee, chairwoman of Protect Arizona Now, which launched the initiative. “This is the first volley demanding accountability from our government to do its job and enforce our laws. Or we’ll do it for them.”

In Arizona, Proposition 200 has overwhelming support. A recent Arizona State University poll showed 74 percent of those surveyed approved of the measure. Before the initiative can reach voters, however, organizers must clear two legal challenges from a national labor union aimed at keeping the initiative off the ballot.

The Service Employees International Union, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO representing 1.6 million members, yesterday asked a Maricopa County judge to remove the measure from the county’s 1.4 million ballots, arguing that the state failed to verify the residency status of Proposition 200’s petition circulators.

The union had previously filed a suit taking issue with the petition’s language, saying it failed to describe the initiative’s full legal consequences. That matter is now pending before the Arizona Supreme Court.

The union is also asking the court to stop the state from counting the ballots in the event that the lawsuits are successful. The courts are unlikely to rule before the state prints its ballots and voter pamphlets, said Joe Kanefield, state elections director.

Mrs. McKee called the lawsuits a last-ditch effort to kill the measure before it can go before voters.

“They’re trying to harass us,” said Mrs. McKee. “They know they can’t win at the ballot box, so they’re trying this smear campaign. Evidently they’ve got a bottomless pit of money because they’ve got all these attorneys.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and outspoken advocate for tighter borders, yesterday blasted the union for trying to keep the initiative from the voters.

“I hope the voters will have the final say on whether this initiative passes, and not the attorneys or labor bosses,” Mr. Tancredo said. “What are they afraid of? I’ll tell you: They are afraid that the American citizens tired of carrying the burden of illegal immigration are finally going to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Scott Washburn, the union’s Arizona director, said his organization feared that, under Proposition 200, state and local employees could face criminal penalties unless they report illegal aliens. The union represents about 500 workers in Arizona, he said.

“We think it’s very bad public policy to require public employees to turn in undocumented people or be liable for criminal penalties,” he said. “It could be any public employees — it could be librarians.”

Mrs. McKee argued that the union’s main goal was to protect its undocumented members. “Most of their, quote, members are illegal aliens working in the hotel and restaurant industry,” she said.

But Mr. Washburn said he didn’t know how many, if any, of the group’s members were undocumented. “We don’t check the legal status of our members,” he said. “Like any industry, there’s no way to know that.”

A coalition of opponents, known as the Statue of Liberty Coalition, has vowed to fight the measure if it reaches the ballot box. The measure is also opposed by the state’s Democratic and Republican leaderships.

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