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Arizona Senate Panel Passes Sweeping Bills Targeting Illegals, Birthright Citizenship

AZ birthright law argument at capitol

Feb. 22: A supporter and opponent of illegal immigrant birthrights debate at the State Capitol in Phoenix. (AP)

PHOENIX -- An Arizona Senate committee late Tuesday narrowly approved a sweeping bill that would target illegal immigrants in public housing, public benefits and the workplace.

The committee earlier Tuesday also approved a bill that would deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants in a measure designed to set up a possible U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue.

Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, who authored Arizona's controversial illegal immigration law last year that touched off a nationwide debate on whether states can enforce federal immigration laws, sponsored Tuesday's more sweeping measure.

"If you're in the country illegally, you don't have a right to public benefits, period," he said.

The bill toughens requirements that employers check work eligibility of new hires, allowing for their business licenses to be suspended if they don't use the federal E-Verify system. Workers caught using a false identity to get a job would face mandatory six-month jail sentences.

It also requires schools to collect information on the legal status of students and report them to law enforcement if their parents don't provide the necessary documents or the documents appear false.

The bill also makes it illegal for an illegal immigrant to drive in the state, providing for a 30-day minimum jail sentence and the seizure of their vehicles if they are convicted.

In housing, it requires public agencies to verify the immigration status of renters and to evict everyone living in a unit if one was found to be an illegal immigrant. For health care, the bill changes some of the document requirements for the state's Medicaid program.

The bill turns public officials into immigration officers and "launches an unprecedented attack on minorities and people of color," said Jaime Farrant of the Border Action Network, an advocacy group.

Passing the bill would place a "dark cloud over Arizona that will make SB1070 tame in comparison," Farrant said, referring to last year's controversial law.

But the Appropriations Committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Andy Biggs, said the bill was a response "to economic and social costs that we face with the onslaught of illegal aliens in our state."

"We need to have the moral courage to deal with this issue when there is a vacuum at the federal," he said.

The bill, approved on a 7-6 vote, advances to consideration by the full Senate after a legal review and discussions by party caucuses. It drew vocal opposition from Democrats who said Pearce -- the Senate's president -- isn't focused on Republicans' stated top priority, the economy.

"This is totally the wrong time for the leader of our Senate to throw our state into another state of chaos," said Democratic Sen. Paula Aboud of Tucson.

Democrats by themselves don't have the votes to block Pearce's bill, but the topic brought out supporters on both sides and security at the Senate was heightened, with about a dozen uniformed police officers deployed in and around the building. Some of the officers outside the building stood between small groups of people as they exchanged catcalls and jeers.

Police said four people were arrested and cited for disorderly conduct after disrupting a Democratic senator's news conference about her bill stiffening penalties for a human smuggling crime.

Sponsors of the automatic citizenship bill approved by the Senate panel earlier Tuesday hope it will prompt a court interpretation on an element of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees citizenship to people born in the country or who are "subject to the jurisdiction" of the U.S.

Bill proponents said the amendment doesn't apply to the children of illegal immigrants because such families don't owe sole allegiance to the U.S.

An hours-long debate centered on whether the measure would save Arizona money by keeping children of illegal immigrants from potentially burdening the state with the costs of benefits that go to citizens.

"Constantly I'm asked by my constituents, `Why is it that when illegal aliens sneak into this country their children are automatically citizens?"' said the bill's Republican sponsor, Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City.

But the leader of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce said lawmakers should focus their efforts on measures similar to the jobs bill they recently approved.

"We believe this case is one which would not get very far, and we are very, very, concerned about the economic consequences of this measure," said Glenn Hamer, the Chamber's chief executive.

An accompanying proposal was also approved by the committee that would establish an interstate compact that defines who is a U.S. citizen and asks states to issue separate birth certificates for those who are citizens and those who are designated as not citizens.

Similar proposals defining who would get automatic citizenship have been introduced by lawmakers in Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Backers expect another dozen states will take up the issue this year.