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Arizona lawmakers advance immigration resolution despite racism claims

Opponents of the concurrent resolution say it will encourage police to rely on racial profiling to enforce the law.

By Joe Duhownik, Courthouse News Service

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona lawmakers from the state Senate military affairs and public safety committee and the House judiciary committee approved a voter resolution establishing illegal border entry as a state crime amid racial profiling and constitutionality concerns voiced in a raucous hearing Wednesday night. 

More than a dozen state lawmakers from both the Senate and House convened in a special joint legislative meeting to hear public testimony on House Concurrent Resolution 2060. Community members including attorneys and church leaders told lawmakers they fear it would empower Arizona police to rely on racial profiling to detain Latino Arizonans. Proponents of the concurrent resolution, including two county sheriffs, said it's necessary to protect Arizona from a “border invasion.”

Rather than go to the governor for a vote, concurrent resolutions are sent to the voters if supported by both chambers of the Legislature. 

Tensions were high during the the more than four-hour meeting, particularly when Republican Senator Janae Shamp of Surprise told an American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist she should be ashamed of herself for misleading the public during a debate over whether immigrants can seek asylum outside of legal ports of entry.

Legally, they can. 

Committee co-chair and Republican state Representative Quang Nguyen of Prescott threatened to “clear the room” if members of the audience continued to interrupt lawmakers. Members of the public often called the lawmakers racist for supporting the concurrent resolution. 

The outcries didn’t stop at the end of the hearing, either. Members of the nonprofit Living United for Change in Arizona and other citizens followed Shamp and Republican state Representative David Gowan of Sierra Vista outside as they walked to their cars, chanting: “These racist bills have got to go.”

The joint committee, made up of the Senate military affairs and public safety committee and the House judiciary committee, convened to hear a “strike everything” amendment to a concurrent resolution that originally would have required government municipalities to use E-verify to confirm citizenship status of anyone accessing social welfare, and would have fined businesses up to $1,000 for every undocumented immigrant hired. 

When the resolution was sent to the Senate, senators altered the language to reflect a bill already vetoed by Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs that would establish border crossing outside a legal port of entry, already a federal crime, as a state crime. It would make it a felony to submit false citizenship documents to government welfare programs or employers, also mirroring federal law. Finally, the resolution would establish “lethal sale of fentanyl” as a felony if the dealer knows the drugs sold contained fentanyl in cases in which fentanyl is the main cause of death. 

Because it’s unclear what probable cause could be found that a person crossed illegally aside from an eyewitness, opponents say police in non-border counties will rely on profiling to enforce the law. Republicans on the committee said no profiling will occur.

“There’s no group of people more respectful to the dignity of all people, of every race, than our police,” state Representative Alexander Kolodin of Scottsdale said. 

Audience members laughed.

Democrat state Representative Analise Ortiz of Phoenix reminded the committee of the ongoing racial profiling case against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, in which orders from a federal court monitor still haven’t been complied with after 17 years. Phoenix police are also under investigation by the Department of Justice for discriminatory policing and brutality. 

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told the committee he’s tired of hearing “anti-police rhetoric.”

“To impugn an entire group of people, you’re doing what you’re accusing us of,” Lamb said. “You’re profiling, and you’re throwing us under the bus as if we’re all bad." 

“It feels like crap, huh?,” state Representative Lupe Contreras asked Lamb.

“It does,” Lamb replied.

“Welcome to my world,” the Democrat from Avondale answered. “It sucks. It feels like crap that all officers are feeling what you just felt right now, because all Latinos feel what my family feels and a lot of others are feeling." 

The bill includes a blanket immunity provision that protects officers against damages claims for any actions taken to enforce the law. Kolodin said while that protects officers from civil liability, it doesn’t preempt citizens from making 14th Amendment equal protection claims if they feel they have been racially profiled. 

The concurrent resolution is modeled after Texas’ Senate Bill 4. That bill is held up in federal court, as the Biden administration and civil rights groups say it preempts federal law, while proponents say it mirrors and helps enforce federal law when the federal government fails to act. The same argument was hashed out in Wednesday’s meeting in Arizona.

If passed by voters, the concurrent resolution will only take effect if Texas’ bill makes it out of court alive. 

The Senate military affairs and public safety committee voted 4-3 along party lines in favor of the concurrent resolution. The Senate plans for a full vote Thursday. Because the contents were changed entirely after it was given to the Senate, it will need to return to the House for a final vote before it can be sent to the 2024 ballot.

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