Arizona Legislature Makes Being Undocumented a Crime

Human Rights

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Arizona is on track to become the first state in the nation to make it a misdemeanor for a person to be there without legal documents.

A bill passed Tuesday by the Arizona House of Representatives will allow the police to detain someone under suspicion of “willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document.” Currently it is an administrative violation to live in the United States illegally, not a crime.

The bill has been the subject of intense debate. But it gained momentum on the heels of the unsolved murder of an Arizona rancher near the U.S.-Mexico border. Robert Krentz was found shot dead in his all-terrain vehicle on March 27. His death was used as an argument in favor of the bill by Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, one of the authors of the bill.

As the Arizona House of Representatives discussed his bill, Sen. Pearce called on ranchers to testify at a hearing on border violence. Dozens of ranchers showed up. But it seemed that their concerns were more about security than about Pearce’s bill.

“This is not about immigration; it’s about preventive security,” said Gary Thrasher, a cattle veterinarian and rancher who lives about three miles from the border. Thrasher was frustrated by the increasingly dangerous climate on the border caused by drug and human smugglers.

But he was also critical of the current enforcement: “I think it’s inhumane to turn somebody loose, give them a head start and tell them, ‘I’m going to chase you till you drop.’ I think that’s a sick way of law enforcement.”

In fact, Thrasher and several other ranchers were unfamiliar with Pearce’s legislation. Patrick Bray, deputy director of government affairs for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said the bill did not address the ranchers’ main concerns. 

“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 Bray.

Supporters of the bill recognized that it wouldn’t do anything to address border issues.

“This bill will not stem the flow of illegal immigrants,” said Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R- Safford, who voted in favor of it.

Over the last five years Arizona has approved a string of laws aimed at undocumented migrants. Opponents of the bill argued that the latest legislation will open the door to racial profiling by police departments and have a chilling effect on immigrant communities, making them afraid to report crimes to the police.

“This bill, whether we intend it or not, terrorizes the people we profit from,” said Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff. 

Others defended the opposite argument.

“This bill will uncuff the police and allow them to assist in the battle against illegal immigration,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R- Fountain Hills. 

Support for the bill is coming mostly from sheriffs and police unions and citizens’ groups that traditionally have supported measures against undocumented immigrants. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), a union that represents more than 2,000 police officers across the state, applauded the legislature’s vote. Mark Spencer, president of PLEA, said that the local police has to act "due to the failure of the federal government to do its job." Spencer emphasized that the legislation will give discretion to local police to arrest undocumented immigrants and does not turn them into immigration agents.

The opposition to the bill includes religious groups, immigration advocates, businesses and even some law enforcement associations. Dan Pochoda, legal director for the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union, said aspects of the bill are unconstitutional. Pochoda said the measure delves into territory that pertains to the federal government, not the state. He said it will make U.S. citizens vulnerable to arrest and interrogation if they are not carrying the right documents at any time. 

“The state has no business doing immigration law,” agreed Glenn Jenks of the Valley Interfaith Network, a coalition of religious groups in the state, who spoke at a press conference early Tuesday. “The proponents make no attempt to hide the fact they want to drive every undocumented person out of the state of Arizona.”

Some business owners also warned against the impact.

“It sends the message that this is an uncertain and dangerous place to do business,” said Sheridan Bailey, a member of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.

Bailey said he agreed with the ranchers’ call for enforcement at the border. “(But) this bill is not about border security; it’s about steering public opinion in ways people will get elected,” he said.

The legislation still has to be approved by the Senate. Once that happens, Pearce said, Gov. Jan Brewer will sign it into law.

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