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Arizona Senate panel OKs illegal immigration bill

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona legislative committee on Tuesday narrowly approved a sweeping bill that would target illegal immigrants in public housing, public benefits and the workplace.

The Senate committee also approved a bill that would deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, 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 the latest measure.

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

Passing the bill would place a “dark cloud over Arizona that will make SB1070 tame in comparison,” said Jaime Farrant of the Border Action Network, an advocacy group, referring to last year’s controversial law.

The new sweeping measure, approved on a 7-6 vote, advances to the full Senate after a legal review and discussions by party caucuses. Democrats by themselves don’t have the votes to block Pearce’s bill.

The measure toughens requirements for employers checking 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 seeks a 30-day minimum jail sentence and the seizure of vehicles belonging to any illegal immigrant convicted of driving in the state.

In housing, it requires public agencies to verify the immigration status of renters and to evict everyone living in a unit if one is 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,” Farrant said.

But the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, 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 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.

The topic brought protesters to the state Capitol, where about a dozen uniformed police officers were stationed in and around the building. 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 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 shouldn’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.

The committee also approved a bill to require hospitals to report to law enforcement any patients who lack valid health insurance and who cannot show they’re in the country legally.

The bill originally barred non-emergency treatment without proof of legal status but was amended to only require reporting.

Supporters said it still would help reduce health care costs and burdens on taxpayers. Critics said it could deter some people from seeking needed care.

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