PHOENIX, AZ -- Arizona could become the first state in the country to criminalize undocumented immigrants.
A bill moving fast through the Arizona Senate would allow local police to arrest and incarcerate someone for "trespassing" into the territory of the state.
"The federal government is not doing its job so we're going to do it," said Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), author of the bill, which is called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act.
On Wednesday, the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee approved SB 1070. Pearce said he is confident that the bill would clear the Legislature and have the support of Gov. Jan Brewer.
During her State of the State speech, the Republican governor mentioned specifically that she would be working with Pearce to "enhance the existing penalties for any criminal alien who returns to our state."
The trespassing bill would make it a misdemeanor to be in the state illegally. A person arrested twice under the law would be charged with a felony. The Arizona bill includes a number of provisions, including one proscribing "sanctuary polices," and restricting any government agency or city from limiting immigration enforcement.
Similar bills have been unsuccessful in the past. Another version of this law didn't get sufficient votes during the past Legislative session. In 2006, former governor Janet Napolitano vetoed it and said in a letter that this was an unfunded mandate for local law-enforcement.
This time around a new provision in the bill is drawing the attention of religious leaders. It would impose penalties on those who transport, harbor or conceal undocumented immigrants. It also would punish those who encourage an undocumented immigrant to move into the state with a misdemeanor and a $1,000 fine.
Rev. Liana Rowe of the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix said she is concerned that it would criminalize anyone who works with migrant communities regardless of their immigration status.
"The feds have not done anything about immigration reform. They've allowed the status quo to remain," she said. "And it really allows states to go rogue on these issues, to not have a systematic and sensible and human approach."
Over the last five years, the Arizona Legislature has been at the forefront of approving bills aimed at regulating illegal immigration. In 2005, it passed a human smuggling law that has been used to prosecute immigrants who hire a smuggler to cross the border. Three years ago, the Legislature approved one of the toughest employer-sanctions laws in the nation, which penalizes companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor.
At the end of 2009, the Legislature enacted a new law requiring state and public employees to report to immigration authorities any undocumented immigrants who apply for public benefits.
"Arizona is obviously leading in the arena of combating illegal immigration," said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant to the Maricopa County attorney, "and the reason for that is that we are a focal point for illegal immigration."