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A ballot proposal in Arizona would give state law enforcement special powers


Arizona voters will likely face a ballot proposal this fall that would enable state law enforcement to arrest people who are in the country illegally, a power usually reserved for federal agencies. It's similar to measures in other states like the so-called SB4 law in Texas now held up in the courts. But in Arizona, there's history. They tried something like it more than a decade ago. As member station KJZZ reporter in Phoenix, Wayne Schutsky, reports, Latino activists are ready this time around.

WAYNE SCHUTSKY, BYLINE: The ballot question would ask voters to create a state law criminalizing crossing the border outside of a legal port of entry. That's already illegal under federal law, but the new proposal would empower local police to enforce it. Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, is one of several groups organizing campaigns to oppose the proposal. The organization itself traces its origin to 2010 when Arizona lawmakers passed a different immigration law.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: Nearly 14 years ago, I stood before our community, terrified about what was coming from the Arizona Legislature. We weren't ready. We had no choice but to organize.

SCHUTSKY: LUCHA executive director Alejandra Gomez says the 2010 law, which was partially overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, led to racial profiling by law enforcement. Joe Garcia works with another group called Chicanos Por La Causa that was created to fight discrimination against Mexican Americans. He says the ballot question is designed to exploit negative stereotypes about immigrants.

JOE GARCIA: It is intended to drive people to the polls through fear and through hatred. It is not based on reality.

SCHUTSKY: Republicans voted to put the question on the ballot after Democratic Governor Kate Hobbs vetoed a similar bill. Proponents say it's different from the 2010 law, that police won't be able to profile because they'll need probable cause, evidence of an illegal entry to the U.S. LUCHA says it plans to knock on 1 million doors this year and register 20,000 voters. It has also filed a lawsuit to block the question from getting on the ballot.

GOMEZ: This is not 2010 anymore. This is 2024, and we are prepared to fight back and win.

SCHUTSKY: Over the past 14 years, LUCHA has grown into a full-fledged political machine. In 2022 alone, it spent over $1 million to influence various ballot measure campaigns in Arizona. Now, influential members of Arizona's business community have also committed to opposing the ballot referral.

That's a marked change from 14 years ago when major business opposition didn't emerge until after the law passed. Arizona faced calls for boycotts in 2010, and a progressive think tank estimated the state lost $141 million due to the law, though some have disputed that figure. James O'Neill with the American Business Immigration Council says memories of the 2010 law, also called SB1070, are what prompted many business groups to speak up now.

JAMES O'NEILL: Everybody still remembers the reputational damage that 1070 did. Everybody remembers the damage that it caused, and so I think that's why folks are ready, willing and poised to defeat this initiative.

SCHUTSKY: Influential groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce lobbied the legislature not to send the ballot referral to voters, fearing the economic impact. The chamber has not said whether it plans to participate in the campaign to defeat the legislation at the ballot, but O'Neill says his group is coordinating response from multiple business groups in Arizona.

O'NEILL: We will work with the businesses that want to speak out through op-eds, through messaging, through education of their membership. We'll also support the ones that want to donate financially and be a part of this larger movement.

SCHUTSKY: Meanwhile, it is less clear who will be campaigning to pass the proposal. Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, who sponsored it, says he doesn't know who will be leading that campaign yet. But he says voters will support the measure even if there isn't significant funding behind the effort.

BEN TOMA: When you're talking to average voters, they understand this is actually a border security issue first and foremost, and a border security bill more than it is an immigration bill. And as such, they - I think it's going to be fine.

SCHUTSKY: Toma has reason to think it won't be hard to convince people to vote yes. Polling shows a majority of Arizona voters would like to see a decrease in the number of migrants crossing the state's border with Mexico. For NPR News, I'm Wayne Schutsky in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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