Lawmakers Gird For Immigration Fight

Daniel Scarpinato, Arizona Daily Star, Jan. 19, 2007

Illegal immigration was said to be the driving issue in Arizona’s November election. Some lawmakers were elected because of it; others where ousted over it.

But so far, talk about immigration has been fairly quiet in our state chambers, a contrast to the impassioned speeches politicians gave during the campaign.

Not for long, some lawmakers say, as Republicans are preparing to launch efforts to continue targeting the issue.

On the November ballot, voters overwhelmingly passed measures to curb illegal entrants’ access to public benefits. Now, it’s time for round two, as legislators attempt to wrestle with something likely to be just as controversial: employer sanctions.

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“One of the keys to the employer-sanction debate is giving employers the ability to verify whether the documents they’re bringing forward are valid, and I think that’s really at the core of the debate,” said Tim Bee, president of the Senate and a Tucson Republican. “If they have collected those things, they have to believe they are accurate.”

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Republican leaders said Wednesday they want to require public employers to use a verification system, which if successful could then be used by private businesses to check whether a potential employee is here legally. And Bee said research is being done into federal policies to ensure that any new state laws proposed do not duplicate federal rules.

One version of an employer-sanction bill is being sponsored by Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Safford Republican.

Konopnicki’s bill would create a fine for first-time violators, and a possible felony charge after subsequent violations. Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican, is also pushing for employer sanctions with a bill he says is similar.

And Pearce, who has become a leading hawk on immigration issues, is sponsoring bills to pump $25 million into border security technology and to permit local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.

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Democrats aren’t against employer sanctions, but on other immigration issues, there may be some partisan division.

Democrats will oppose efforts to require local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws, said Rep. Phil Lopes, a Tucson Democrat and House minority leader, in an interview earlier this month.

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Instead, Democrats are launching an effort to clarify a bill passed last session cracking-down on those who smuggle illegal entrants. Local law enforcement agencies, they say, are using the law as a way to prosecute illegal entrants, not just the smugglers.

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Meanwhile, Gov. Janet Napolitano has focused her new agenda on preparing Arizona for growth.

Napolitano, a Democrat who sailed into her second term, in part, because of her tough position on the border, has said enforcement of the border is primarily a federal issue. She says she’s hopeful Congress will pass “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Republicans aren’t so patient.

“The people of Arizona have made it very clear that if the feds aren’t doing it, we have to step up,” said Thayer Verschoor, Senate majority leader.

Napolitano’s spokeswoman, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, said the governor is open to legislation “if the intent is to seriously focus on real employer sanctions.” Napolitano called a bill passed last year amnesty for employers, and vetoed it.

With the election over, the immigration issue could take the back burner to other issues, like growth and transportation.

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Ultimately, the immigration issue has toned down because “political campaigns have gone away,” said Carol Zimmerman, a Democratic pollster.

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Pearce admits pushing his agenda will be difficult in an off-election year, but says he’s committed to bringing his measures to the ballot if they don’t pass.

“I’m not new to this issue,” he said.

Immigration related

Here are some of the major bills that are being sponsored this session. Not all have been formally introduced yet.

o House Bill 2461—Permit state and local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. Primary sponsor: Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.

o House Bill 2386—Employer sanctions. Establish a fine and civil penalty for employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. Primary sponsor: Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford.

o House Bill 2473—$25 million for a “border technology” fund. Primary sponsors: Pearce and five others.

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