Aiming to copy Texas, AZ Republicans want to wrest immigration enforcement away from the feds

Arizona Republicans want to give local police the ability to arrest migrants crossing the border, mirroring a Texas law that flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent and settled constitutional issues, and is currently being challenged by the federal government.  

Dubbed the “Arizona Invasion Act,” Senate Bill 1231 would make it a crime for an undocumented person to enter the state from Mexico anywhere other than a port of entry. Law enforcement officials would be authorized to arrest people they suspect of illegally crossing the border, and a conviction would lead to a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries with it a jail sentence of up to 6 months. It would also allow state judges to issue deportation orders.

Repeated crossings, or drug-related charges could lead to more severe punishments. If the migrant agrees to return to Mexico voluntarily, a judge could drop the charges on the first offense. 

Republican lawmakers championed the proposal at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, and sold it as a way to resolve the consistently busy Arizona-Mexico border. The Tucson Sector, covering the state’s largest swath of the border at 262 miles, was the U.S.-Mexico border sector with the most migrant encounters for five consecutive months last year

“Arizona is in a crisis,” Senate President Warren Petersen said. “This is directly due to the negligent inaction of the Biden administration.” 

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With the 2024 elections on the horizon, Republicans have sought to highlight the federal government’s border policy as a failure and tout their own party’s hardline immigration stance as the solution. A deal in Congress to enact tougher immigration restrictions in exchange for more funding for Ukraine has stalled as Republicans seek greater changes to asylum laws. And negotiations appear to have begun falling apart, after former President Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nominee, signaled opposition to resolving the border issue before he can capture the White House, putting congressional Republicans in a quandary about whether to move forward at all. 

Republicans: Migrants are ‘criminals’ and ‘invaders’

Petersen, a Republican from Gilbert, said the responsibility for securing the border — which the U.S. Supreme Court has said is the sole purview of the federal government — now lies with local officials and warned that not doing so would only endanger Arizonans, using xenophobic language to refer to migrants as criminals. 

“These aren’t just innocent humans looking for a better life. These are human smugglers, child sex traffickers, rapists, murderers, terrorists and dangerous criminals,” he said. “They’re bringing with them an enormous amount of drugs, especially fentanyl.”

As the state struggles with a drastic increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths, including fentanyl, Republicans have mischaracterized and weaponized the data to escalate alarm around drug smuggling efforts at the U.S-Mexico border. Reports from U.S. Customs and Border Protection actually show that the vast majority of fentanyl is smuggled by U.S. citizens via ports of entry — and most of it is eventually intercepted by port officials. 

Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, who sponsored the legislation, echoed Petersen, saying that Arizona is in “the thick of an invasion”. 

Invasion terminology has been used time and again by Republican lawmakers justifying draconian border policies, but it’s also been linked to nativist movements and white supremacist terrorists, like the El Paso shooter who targeted Mexicans at a Walmart. In 2022, Republican lawmakers and former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich unsuccessfully lobbied Gov. Doug Ducey to declare an invasion at the U.S. border and wage war on Mexican cartels and gangs.

Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes, whose county is more than four hours away from the border, said the bill simply makes it easier for law enforcement officials to do their jobs and address urgent issues. 

“This is about providing tools to local law enforcement to secure the southern border,” he said. 

Rhodes waved away concerns over possible civil rights violations the bill may present, saying that police officers are conscious of not violating those rights and probable cause would be paramount in determining whether or not to detain someone. 

“If you’re out in the middle of the desert where there’s not a port of entry for miles and miles and miles, and you encounter people within a short distance of the border, reasonable people can assume that those people came across the border and not an official port of entry,” he said. “If you are somewhere close to a port of entry like Nogales and you encounter people in an area — perhaps they did come across the port of entry, perhaps they came over the fence. You don’t really know, but you have to have probable cause before you can stop and detain them.” 

States can’t legally enforce immigration law

The legislation hearkens back to 2010, when Arizona lawmakers approved SB1070, the state’s notorious “show me your papers” law that allowed police officers to detain drivers on the suspicion of their legal status. That law operated on a similar mechanism of “reasonable suspicion.” 

Immigrant and Latino advocacy groups widely criticized SB1070 for its potential to lead to racial profiling and civil rights organizations challenged the law in court. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down various provisions of SB1070 for infringing on federal immigration enforcement, ruling that the federal government has sole authority to enforce immigration laws. The court did preserve the “show me your papers” portion that requires police officers to detain someone until their immigration status can be verified. 

And while Brnovich later issued an informal opinion instructing police officers to ignore the “show me your papers” provision, the Phoenix Police Department still coordinates with federal immigration authorities to confirm the legal status of people its officers arrest. 

And while Republican lawmakers have grappled with Hobbs’ veto stamp in the past –  with the Democrat issuing more than 100 rejections last session — they’re hopeful that her recent criticism of the Biden Administration’s border policy might mean she’ll side with them. In her State of the State address, Hobbs blasted the federal government for its inaction and its decision to shutter the Lukeville port of entry in response to a surge in border crossings. After a nearly three week closure, she mobilized the state National Guard to help reopen it

“I hope that her statement in her State of the State address that the federal government is failing us is a sign that she will sign this bill,” said Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott. 

“Now is not the time for half measures,” added Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City. “The governor has already realized it and acknowledged it by putting the state guard down.” 

There remains a good chance that the measure will end up on the wrong side of her veto stamp, however, as Hobbs also promised in her state of the state speech that she would support a “humane approach” to immigration. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on what her stance might be.

What $1.7 billion deficit?

Lawmakers dismissed concern over the cost future lawsuits would incur for the state, which is already facing a deficit that analysts now say is about $1.7 billion. Texas was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month over the law the Arizona bill copies, with federal officials arguing that it unlawfully assumes the federal government’s exclusive authority over immigration enforcement. 

Arizona is prepared to take on a court battle to secure the southern border, Petersen said, even as Republicans are readying cuts to state spending to fill a massive $1.7 billion budget deficit.

“If the question is, are we going to fight back if the federal government won’t do its job and actually attacks us when we’re trying to protect our own border because they won’t do it? We’re going to absolutely do that and, yes, we have the resources to do that,” he said.

Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a migrant rights advocacy group, was disappointed to hear that the Texas-style law was being proposed in Arizona, but said she wasn’t surprised, considering the state’s history of anti-immigrant policies. 

“We’ve been a punching bag for a long time,” she lamented. 

Garcia criticized Republicans for introducing legislation hostile to immigrants while large sectors of the workforce are bolstered by undocumented workers, including the agricultural industry. Nearly half of all U.S. farmworkers are undocumented.

“They want to be the (SB)1070 heroes again, they want to outdo (Texas Gov. Greg) Abbott while their industries still depend on undocumented workers,” Garcia said. “How dare they depend so much on Mexican commerce and yet treat people like this?” 

While she’s confident and relieved that Hobbs will likely veto the bill, Garcia said she expects to continue hearing anti-immigrant rhetoric as the 2024 election season heats up. To combat that rhetoric, the coalition is heading a “Stop the Hate” campaign to keep voters informed about political talking points.

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