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Arizona Debates Charging Illegals With Trespassing

Faced with mounting election-year public pressure to curtail illegal immigration, Arizona lawmakers are trying to expand state trespassing law to enable local authorities to arrest illegal border crossers.

Supporters say the state has to get involved in combating illegal immigration because the federal government has failed in its responsibility. The state is the busiest illicit entry point along the nation's southern border.

One proposal would make it a felony for immigrants violating federal immigration law to be in Arizona. Immigrants arrested for trespassing could then be deported, prosecuted by local authorities, or handed over to federal immigration agents. Another proposal would make immigrant trespassing a top-tier misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The bills' authors also proposed increased funds -- $75 million in one plan and $30 million in another -- for communities' enforcement efforts.

Opponents say the proposals will not be effective, noting that a similar strategy flopped last year in New Hampshire because states don't have authority to enforce federal immigration law. A judge dismissed the cases of illegal immigrants arrested on New Hampshire trespassing charges, ruling that the tactic was unconstitutional.

The author of the Arizona misdemeanor bill, state Rep. Russell Pearce, insists local authorities do have power to act. "It just supports federal law, so it's perfectly legal," he said.

State Sen. Barbara Leff, who proposed the felony trespassing bill, said that if state and local authorities cannot enforce federal immigration law, "We'll make it a state crime and then they can enforce state law."

Her proposal cleared a committee last week.

Ray Borane, mayor of the southeastern Arizona border city of Douglas, said the trespassing approach would be expensive to enforce and that his community would have to double its police shifts.

"I have never heard of anything more ridiculous in my life," Borane said.