Arizona Gov. Ducey signs controversial immigrant inmate bill despite protests

Immigrant activist arrested at protest on Wednesday. (Puente Human Rights Movement)

Immigrant activist arrested at protest on Wednesday. (Puente Human Rights Movement)

Despite protests from immigrant activists who chained themselves to the Capitol building in Phoenix, Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that will require some immigrants in the country illegally and convicted of certain crimes to spend more time in prison before being deported.

House Bill 2451 requires immigrants who are in the country illegally and are in prison to serve 85 percent of their sentences, rather than half, before they are released to the federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

The Republican proposal is the first to hit the governor's desk in a series of immigration proposals introduced this session. The measure is a muted version of a similar bill backed by anti-illegal immigration Republicans that garnered national attention but has since lost traction.

Lawmakers in the state have largely avoided legislating immigration since Arizona's 2010 law, SB 1070, sparked national controversy, led to a lengthy court fight and rattled the business community.

Immigrant rights advocates say HB 2451 is a SB 1070-style legislation that would increase prison populations and deny alternatives to many simply because they are undocumented.

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Ducey said the bill is about holding everyone to the same standard of justice. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce agrees with the governor supporting the bill as "a criminal justice issue, not an immigration issue."

"While some have tried to play politics with this law enforcement issue, the reality is this is a sensible public safety measure that ensures we have one justice system that applies to all," he said in a signing statement on the measure.

The bill could affect about 1,000 inmates a year according to the Department of Corrections – and reportedly could cost the state $16.7 million more each year to house inmates longer.

Most low- and mid-level felons are affected, while people convicted of murder and other serious felonies are not eligible for early release. U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy directs federal immigration officials to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who are in the country illegally and have committed a felony.

The bill would repeal the current law, which allows federal immigration officials to pick up prisoners who entered in the country illegally after serving half of their sentence.

Arizona state senator John Kavanagh, a Republican, says current law unfairly allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to serve less time than other prisoners. "The current law is an absurd law, and this creates a terrible injustice in our system," Kavanagh said during a committee hearing on the bill.

Opposition to the bill

Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat, said the measure could cost the state a lot of money by requiring the state to incarcerate the affected prisoners for a longer period. 

"This is another example of a bill where our zeal to be harsh on immigrants and criminals doesn't necessarily translate into good public policy," he said in senate deliberations.

The Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce denounced the bill, saying it has "the potential of reigniting the bitter and controversial debate that surrounded the passage of SB 1070 in 2010."

On Wednesday, police arrested five immigrant-rights activists from the group Puente for trespassing after they chained themselves to the front entrance of the executive tower at the Capitol to demand that Ducey veto the legislation. Puente's organizing director, Francisca Porchas, told the Associated Press that about 30 protesters blocked the entrance.

"We want to send a very strong message to the governor that we are not going to allow this kind of legislation to become law in this state," Porchas said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.