Arizona will decide in November whether state police can detain immigrants

The Republican majority in the local Congress has proposed making irregular crossings at any place other than an immigration checkpoint a state crime punishable with jail

Migration Arizona
A Border Patrol agent gives instructions to a group of immigrants arriving in Lukeville, Arizona, in December 2023.John Moore (Getty Images)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The Arizona Congress on Tuesday adopted a proposal that will ask residents of the border state whether local police should be permitted to detain immigrants crossing from Mexico. The question will be on the ballot for the November 5 elections, in which irregular immigration has become one of the key issues for voters. If approved, the measure would give lawmakers the green light to make it a state crime to cross at any point other than an immigration checkpoint, even though irregular crossings are already considered federal crimes prosecuted by the U.S. Border Patrol.

The decision was approved by the Arizona House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republican Party. The result of the vote on HCR 2060 was 31-29, with Democratic legislators in the minority. During the session there were tense moments, as several speakers in favor and against the proposal confronted each other from the rostrum. The Republicans had one of the galleries of the chamber closed to prevent groups of advocates from interrupting the legislative process. In previous sessions, some activists had shouted “stop the hate! stop the hate!”

The text of the bill makes irregular entry into Arizona a misdemeanor, punishable by six months in prison for a first-time offender. It also provides for the expulsion of foreign nationals after an unspecified period in a jail or at an immigration station.

“You failed to go to the border and actually see human tragedy or the amount of money being spent,” Republican Congressman John Gillette told Democrats. His party has called for action to address what it calls an immigration “crisis” created by President Joe Biden. Republican lawmaker Matt Gress claimed that some 274,000 people crossed illegally from Mexico into Arizona last year. Nearly 300 were on law enforcement terrorist watch lists.

If Arizona adopts the measure at the ballot box, it would join other states with similar anti-immigrant laws such as Texas. However, unlike Texas, Arizona is governed by a Democrat, Katie Hobbs, who vetoed a similar law in March and opposes the measure. By putting the question to the electorate, Republicans are preventing the decision from going to Hobbs’ desk for her to enact.

Like Texas’ SB4 anti-immigration law, the Arizona Republican measure seeks to give local law enforcement immigration-policing functions. The Texas legislation is currently before the courts to determine its legality. The U.S. Constitution only gives such powers to the federal branch and not to local authorities. Despite this, the measure would also allow state judges to decide on repatriation to their countries of origin for people who have crossed illegally.

The proposal has caused many observers to evoke Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant past. In 2010, the state Congress adopted SB1070, which became a weapon of persecution for Latinos and other non-whites, who could be detained merely on suspicion of being irregular immigrants. The law became the target of several lawsuits that gradually chipped away its power until it became obsolete.

“Arizona is wanting to put the clock backward,” said Democratic legislator Consuelo Hernandez, from Tucson, who cited in her speech the controversial law promoted by former Governor Jan Brewer. She was not alone. Congresswoman Junelle Cavero, from Phoenix, recalled that when SB1070 was in force she was stopped by the authorities “for no reason.” “I can assure you that HCR 2060 is not a solution, it is election-year politics,” said Mariana Sandoval, another legislator from the Democratic bloc.

The Arizona measure came on the same day that President Joe Biden announced an executive order that allows for the closure of the border with Mexico once a certain number of illegal crossings or asylum seekers are exceeded per day over a period of a week. The measure does not affect the tens of thousands of people already pursuing their asylum processes on U.S. soil, but takes up certain legal tools employed by Donald Trump under section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The decree, which is considered an election campaign measure, has been roundly rejected by the progressive sectors of the Democratic Party and by human and migrant rights groups that supported Biden’s run for the White House almost four years ago.

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