March 26, 2010— -- A bill empowering police to arrest illegal immigrants and charge them with trespassing for simply being in the state of Arizona, is likely just weeks away from becoming the toughest law of its kind anywhere in the country.
Already passed by the state's Senate and currently being reconciled with a similar version in the House, the bill would essentially criminalize the presence of the 460,000 illegal immigrants living in the state.
The measure allows police to detain people on the suspicion that they are illegal immigrants, outlaws citizens from employing day laborers, and makes it illegal for anyone to transport an illegal immigrant, even a family member, anywhere in the state.
The bill's supporters say a local crackdown has become a necessity because the federal government has failed to adequately seal the borders or actively enforce its laws. They blame Arizona's spiraling crime and unemployment rates on its large population of illegal immigrants.
"When you come to America you must have a permission slip, period," said state Sen. Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who sponsored the bill. "You can't break into my country, just like you can't break into my house."
"It will be, there's no doubt, the toughest immigration enforcement bill in the nation," said Pearce, a former deputy in the Maricopa County Sherriff's Office, where he worked for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, nicknamed "America's toughest sheriff." Arpaio, who has stirred controversy over his roundups of illegal immigrants, is being investigated by the federal government for alleged racial profiling.
Immigrant rights groups believe the bill, especially the trespassing provision, will further burden the already stretched-thin resources of local law enforcement agencies, result in hassles of U.S. citizens, and encourage cops to arrest and charge people based on racial profiling.
"The really dangerous impact is the creation of a new state crime related to trespassing. If law enforcement has a reasonable suspicion that someone is undocumented they can be stopped and forced to prove they're a U.S. citizen. If they can't prove it, they can be arrested," said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an immigrant advocacy group,
"But reasonable suspicion is so broad and the law provides no definition and no training for law enforcement on how to identify someone. It essentially mandates racial profiling," she said.
Pearce said he "was not advocating roundups." By creating a law that "eliminates all sanctuary policies," illegal immigrants -- unable to work, travel or even be present in the state -- would ultimately "leave on their own."
The senator argues the state law puts teeth in federal laws already on the books, by turning misdemeanors, like employing day laborers, into felonies.
Similar bills were vetoed three times by former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, but current Gov. Jan Brewer has signaled she will sign the bill once it reaches her desk.
This weekend Republican U.S. Senator John McCain will campaign in Arizona with his former vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin.
McCain is in the midst of one of the toughest primary campaigns of a lengthy career in politics.
McCain, who once back a bipartisan effort to grant illegal immigrants amnesty, has deflected questions about whether he supports the legislation.
"It's a state issue," McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told ABC News via e-mail.
Contender J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman, however, has come out to actively support the bill and used McCain's ambiguity to attack him.
"Sen. Russell Pearce of the Arizona State Senate has worked very hard to combat illegal immigration and I think his Senate bill 1070 is a good bill," Hayworth told ABC News.
"Simply stated, we need to give law enforcement officers the tools to do their jobs. Border security is national security and it's time to take handcuffs off law enforcement and put them on criminals who break our laws."