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Hobbs vetoed this immigration law. Now, it's one step closer to Arizona ballot after committee vote

On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers in the Arizona Senate advanced legislation that would give state and local law enforcement the power to enforce immigration laws over the objections of Democrats and Latino advocacy groups that say it will lead to racial profiling by law enforcement.

The measure, modeled after Texas’ controversial SB4, would make it a misdemeanor under state law to enter Arizona illegally outside of official ports of entry. The Senate’s Military Affairs, Public Safety and Border Security Committee passed the measure on a 4-3 vote along party lines. 

Legislators supporting the measure said it mirrors existing federal immigration law but is necessary in the absence of federal action to curb the flow of immigrants crossing the border illegally.

But Democrats argued the measure, which mirrors a bill vetoed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs earlier this year, would not solve the problem.

“I absolutely understand Arizonans’ frustration and put me on the top of that list of the federal government’s failure to secure our southern border and the feeling of wanting to take it into your own hands,” Hobbs said. “This bill, whether it's in bill form or ballot measure form, is not the answer to that problem.” 

But Hobbs can’t veto the new proposal. 

It is too late to introduce new legislation this year, but Republicans on the Senate’s Military Affairs, Public Safety and Border Security Committee voted to amend an existing measure, HCR 2060, sponsored by House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria) that was already approved by the Arizona House along party lines. That proposal would have strengthened existing employment laws that would make it tougher for people who cross the border illegally to work in the state

The new measure — if passed by the full Arizona House and Senate — will go to voters, not Hobbs, for approval on the November ballot. 

“I'm proud that we're including much of that language in the Secure the Border Act, so that we can send this to the ballot to the citizens — we the people,” said Sen. Janae Shamp (R-Surprise), who sponsored the vetoed bill. “They will have the chance to decide whether to do something or sit back and watch as our country deteriorates from border-related crimes and the influx of illegals too large for our cities to handle.”

The new measure retains pieces of Toma’s original legislation, including making it a felony for someone in the country illegally to submit fake documents to the federal, state or local governments in order to obtain public benefits.  

It would also make it a felony if a person in the country illegally submits fake information to employers to evade detection by the federal e-Verify system, but the amendment removed language holding business owners to that same standard.

Critics of the proposal compared it to SB 1070, the controversial immigration law passed in 2010 that was partially overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rocky Rivera told lawmakers his family experienced racial profiling under SB 1070. He said his father, a military veteran, was the subject of unfair traffic stops and treated poorly by law enforcement under that law. 

“To say that this does not weaponize the police force against us … I think is totally wrong, sir,” he said.

The bill’s supporters said allegations that the measure would lead to racial profiling are untrue. 

Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes, president of the Arizona Sheriffs Association, said officers would need “probable cause” under the measure.

“So what does that look like?” Rhodes said. “The sheriffs view this as primarily a border bill, because you're seeing people coming across, you have eyewitness testimony that people came across, you have technology that indicates that people came across.” 

But critics, including Sen. Eva Burch (D-Mesa), said the measure does not include any language clearly stating the law would be used to prosecute only individuals witnessed crossing the border illegally.

“Where is the directive in this bill that does establish what those parameters are?” Burch said. “If those parameters don't exist, then every interaction with police becomes a potential immigration interview.”

Rep. Analise Ortize (D-Phoenix) also expressed concerns about a clause that protects officers from civil lawsuits related to their actions under the measure, saying it could be used to protect officers who commit racial profiling from accountability.

Sen. David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista) said that was not the intent of the clause, but Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said that clause could be a concern.

“I think it is highly concerning that there is legislation that we have not worked out these kinks,” Ortiz said.

Petersen, the Senate president, acknowledged the law could be used to make arrests away from the border in some situations if there was specific evidence, such as a video recording, showing a person crossing the border illegally. 

But Republicans claimed there was no need to explicitly write a probable-cause requirement into the law.

“That's because it's a constitutional requirement that applies to our entire criminal code,” Rep. Alexander Kolodin (R-Scottsdale) said. 

Republicans said the measure is needed to combat crime stemming from illegal border crossings, including the flow of illegal fentanyl into the state. Law enforcement officials said more than 34 million fentanyl pills were seized in Arizona in 2023, though they say most of what is coming through those ports is smuggled by U.S. citizens or others legally authorized to enter the country.

The new proposal includes a new criminal provision that includes enhanced sentencing guidelines for a person found guilty of knowingly selling fentanyl that causes the death of another person.

Republicans said the severity of that crisis necessitates action.

“I know it's going to be perceived as controversial, but here's what I would say: come up with a solution then,” Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said. “Don't just criticize; come up with a solution, because our people in Arizona are dying.”

But critics said this proposal will do more harm than good and could also result in the prosecution of asylum seekers awaiting a legal hearing in the U.S.

In addition to concerns about racial profiling, Hobbs and some business leaders argued it would exacerbate the state’s ongoing labor shortage, especially for industries reliant on immigrant labor, and tax local police departments, because the measure includes no funding mechanism to account for the increased responsibilities laid on local and state law enforcement agencies. 

“It will demonize communities,” Hobbs said. “It will hurt businesses. It will hurt farmers. it will send jobs to other states.”

Supporters acknowledged the measure would carry a substantial price tag – and that they don’t know exactly how much it would cost.

Rhodes, the Yavapai County sheriff, confirmed that and said he will be calling on elected officials to send more dollars to law enforcement if the measure is approved by voters. 

“The sheriffs have, in very clear terms, articulated to everybody our concerns about the cost, not only to the sheriff's office, but to the local public safety infrastructure,” Rhodes said. “This can't be put on the backs of the counties.”

One measure that could alleviate some of the burden on local sheriffs is a provision that would allow the Department of Corrections to incarcerate individuals arrested under the statute if a local jail does not have room. 

But Democrats also criticized that portion of the law, because it allows incarceration to occur even if the individual is not actually convicted of a crime.

Rep. Lupe Contreras, the Democratic minority leader in the House, pleaded with his colleagues not to send the measure to voters. Echoing other critics, he recalled his own experience under SB 1070 when he felt he and his father were stopped by police simply because of the color of their skin and their choice of clothing and music.

“It does hurt, and it is impactful,” Contreras said. “And you all need to really understand it is a problem. It divides this country.”

Republicans continued to distance the new legislation from SB 1070, which was dubbed the “show me your papers bill” by critics because it allowed law enforcement to demand proof of immigration status if they suspected a person was not in the country legally.

Petersen said HCR 2060 is essentially “a border bill” dealing with the physical act of crossing the border outside of a port of entry. 

“This is not SB 1070, where you're talking about things happening all over the state,” Petersen said. “This is what is happening at the border.” 

The bill suggests there is an SB 1070 connection, though.

Republicans’ new proposal includes a clause stating it cannot go into effect until 60 days after the Supreme Court overrules its SB 1070 decision or any part of Texas’ SB 4 – the bill Arizona’s border crossing legislation is based on – goes into effect.

SB 4 is currently on hold pending a legal challenge working its way through federal courts.

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.