Arizona to Criminalize Presence of Undocumented Immigrants

A bill currently working its way through the Arizona legislature would criminalize the presence of undocumented immigrants in the state through an expansion of its trespass laws, increase the role of local law enforcement in upholding immigration law and penalize anyone who harbors an undocumented immigrant.

These measures would be the first of their kind in the country, said Alessandra Meetze, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Arizona office, and would “exacerbate the already serious problem that we have of racial profiling. What has happened here basically forces every single locality in Arizona to prioritize immigration enforcement over all else.”

The first offense of trespassing by an undocumented immigrant would be a top-tier misdemeanor that would carry a penalty of up to six months in jail, while a second violation would be a mid-tier felony – punishable by one-and-a-half to three years in prison.

Republican Sen. Russell Pearce, the main sponsor of the proposal, said that undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds bring crime and violence to America. “The greatest threat to our neighborhoods is the illegal alien invasion,” he said.

Critics such as Kingman Police Chief Robert DeVries worry about the burden of the legislation on local law enforcement. “We are not anti-immigration enforcement,” said DeVries, who opposes the bill. “We are just concerned about some of the responsibilities that are being pushed on us and how it affects our ability to provide day-to-day services in our communities.”

A report released by the ACLU in October 2009 further disagrees with the assumption that local law enforcement should work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under “the existing 287(g) program, which delegates some federal immigration enforcement authority to certain state and local agencies.”

In their statement, the ACLU said that it has “long called for an end to the 287(g) program and continues to strongly oppose ICE’s use of the agreements, which have led to increased racial profiling and due process violations across the country … Disregarding civil rights, breaking bonds between immigrant communities and the police and failing to intelligently prioritize enforcement will only make all of us worse off. ICE should terminate the program immediately.”

The ACLU went on to challenge the assumption that immigration, and specifically undocumented immigration, led to an increase in crime.

“Most evidence collected in academic studies shows that immigrants are not more likely, and are probably less likely, to commit crimes. When the city council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for example, adopted a local anti-immigrant ordinance, it declared that ‘illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates.’ Similar public statements have been made by state and federal legislators across the country. But when these claims are put to the test, they fail. In Hazleton itself, for example, the crime rate decreased at the same time that the number of immigrants in Hazleton was increasing, and evidence showed that undocumented immigrants were suspected in only 21 out of 8,571 crimes from over five years.”

The state attempted to pass similar legislation in 2006, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano, a Democrat, said she was against automatically turning all immigrants who sneaked into the state into criminals and did not think the legislation was a solution to undocumented immigration.

“It is unfortunate that the Legislature has once again ignored the officials who are most directly affected by illegal immigration and instead has passed yet another bill that will have no effect on the problem but that will impose an unfunded burden on law enforcement,” she said.

An estimated 460,000 undocumented immigrants live in Arizona, and its border with Mexico is one of the heaviest crossing points into the United States. In 2005, 253 people died trying to cross the desert into Arizona.

It is also home to the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who is known for his jails where detainees live in tents in the desert, and his crackdown on undocumented immigration through his police force. Arpaio is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations and the FBI for abuse of power.

Meetze says that the bill, which the House could vote on as early as this week, is likely to pass under Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. Though “in Maricopa County it is so bad already it may not make a difference,” she said, “the implications [of this bill] are going to be drastic for the community.”