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Phoenix business leaders slam resurrected GOP immigration bill as 'an unworkable response'

Phoenix business leaders are discouraging Arizona lawmakers from asking voters to approve legislation that would give state and local law enforcement the power to enforce immigration laws.

After Republicans in the Arizona Senate advanced a measure that would make crossing the border illegally a state crime, Greater Phoenix Leadership issued a statement calling on the Legislature to kill the proposal, which would go before voters in November if it passes out of the state legislature.

The group, which includes CEOs from many of the Valley’s largest employers, called the measure “an unworkable response to a federal problem with unknown consequences.”

“GPL recognizes that the border crisis presents a variety of public safety concerns to the citizens of Arizona but believes it must be resolved at the federal level,” according to the statement.

The statement echoed concerns expressed by other business leaders before the Senate’s Military Affairs, Public Safety and Border Security Committee, where Republicans voted along party lines on Wednesday to advance the measure.

Also of concern: The legislation has no funding attached to pay for increased police responsibilities.

“The ballot referral includes no money to pay for the demands it makes of local law enforcement agencies. That omission should concern voters,” Kimber Lanning, CEO of Local First Arizona, said before the vote. “When Arizona tries to take a federal issue into its own hands, the people of Arizona pay the price, whether emotionally or psychologically or economically. Our community deserves better.”

John Graham, CEO of developer Sunbelt Holdings, told the committee that the measure could further exacerbate the state’s employment shortage.

“Arizona's economy simply cannot function without the hard work and entrepreneurship of our immigrant community,” Graham said. “This harmful ballot referral is going to drive workers out of our state, and we will be in a world of hurt.”

But Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said those fears are unfounded and claimed the bill will reduce crime related to illegal border crossings, which he says would have a positive impact on businesses. 

“We are hearing from business owners, and our business owners are telling us to protect the border,” Petersen said. 

He noted that sections of the proposed legislation bar individuals from using fraudulent documentation to receive public benefits or circumvent the federal E-Verify system. The proposal simply adds teeth to existing law, he added.

“This is truly a border security bill. It does nothing with businesses,” Petersen said.

Warren Petersen (left) and Ben Toma
Warren Petersen (left) and Ben Toma

Lawmakers did strip out a provision of the bill, originally proposed by House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria), that would have also made it a felony for business owners to knowingly circumvent E-Verify, the federal system that allows employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.

Petersen said that segment was removed because there was not enough support amongst lawmakers to keep it in the bill.

The proposal now needs to pass a full vote of the Arizona House and Senate before it can go before voters.

Graham, the Arizona developer, said in March that he would put money behind a campaign to defeat the ballot referral if it makes it onto the ballot. When he made the comments, the measure only included new rules that would make it tougher for people who cross the border illegally to work in the state, not the clause making crossing the border illegally a state crime.

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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.