Arizona Senate panel passes birthright citizen law

PHOENIX (AP) - An Arizona Senate committee approved a bill late Tuesday designed to set up a U.S. Supreme Court case on automatic citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.

The Republican-led Appropriations Committee panel was also expected to consider a more sweeping bill later Tuesday that would target illegal immigrants in public housing, public benefits and the workplace.

That measure, which would add to last year's controversial Arizona illegal immigration law, drew vocal opposition from Democrats, who say its sponsor isn't focused on Republicans' stated top priority, the economy.

The 29-page bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Russell Pearce, who also authored last year's law, which touched off a nationwide debate on whether states can enforce federal immigration laws.

Democrats don't have the votes to block the Pearce's most recent measure, but the topic brought out supporters on both sides and security at the Senate was heightened, with about a dozen uniformed police officers deployed in and around the building. Some of the officers outside the building stood between small groups of people as they exchanged catcalls and jeers.

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.

Pearce's bill toughens requirements that employers check 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 makes it illegal for an illegal immigrant to drive in the state, providing for a 30-day minimum jail sentence and the seizure of their vehicles if they are convicted.

In housing, it requires public agencies to verify the immigration status of renters and to evict everyone living in a unit if one was found to be an illegal immigrant. For health care, the bill changes some of the document requirements for the state's Medicaid program.

Another bill set for debate would require hospitals to confirm whether nonemergency patients are in the country legally. The medical industry opposes that bill, arguing that immigrants with contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, would avoid going to hospitals or clinic, putting themselves and the public at a grave health risk.

Sponsors of the automatic citizenship bill approved by the Senate panel earlier Tuesday 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 doesn'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 state 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.


Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.


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