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Arizona Senate panel passes measures targeting immigrants

PHOENIX — Republican Arizona lawmakers are again making a foray into illegal immigration, with a Senate committee advancing a measure Monday barring judges from giving sentencing breaks to immigrants in the country illegally and making them ineligible for parole.

Republican Sen. Steve Smith sponsored a similar bill last year that requiring judges to sentence people to the presumptive term in jail or prison when they have already violated immigration laws. This year’s bill omits misdemeanor crimes and only applies to felonies.

Testifying before the committee Monday were the parents of two men killed by immigrants. Both urged the committee to adopt “Grant’s Law.” The name comes from Grant Ronnebeck, a Mesa retail clerk killed by a person in the country illegally. The man had been sentenced to probation for two burglaries and turned over the federal officials, who let him out on bond pending deportation proceedings.

Testifying was Steve Ronnebeck, Grant’s father, and Mary Ann Mendoza, whose police officer son was killed in an accident caused by a man in the country illegally. She urged the panel to ignore opponents of the proposal to protect Americans.

“I want to remind people that the word illegal, when you choose to come to a country illegally, you’ve consciously made that choice,” Mendoza said. “When you’re in a country illegally and you’ve chosen to commit a crime, that’s has been your choice to commit that crime.”

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said the law would be costly, step on federal government’s sole responsibility for immigration law and violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“This bill creates a separate but unequal sentencing scheme based solely on a person’s immigration status,” Will Gaona said.

Arizona passed a series of immigration crackdowns last decade that culminated with the approval of SB 1070 in 2010, which launched protests, lawsuits and national controversy with its provision requiring police to try and determine the immigration status of people during routine stops. Courts barred enforcement of several sections of the law, but the questioning requirement was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, despite racial profiling concerns raised by critics of the statute.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has largely avoided passing immigration proposals since then, but Smith, R-Maricopa, has sponsored several measures in recent years that have gone nowhere.

He said his new proposal isn’t anything like SB1070, instead just requiring a mid-range sentence for a felony conviction.

“The thinking is if you’ve already violated the law once, either overstayed your welcome or broken into the country, whatever it is, that’s one strike,” Smith said. “But now, you’re not here just to work, you’re not here just to work, you’re not here to get a better life. You’re convicted of a felony.”

All three Democrats on the Senate committee voted against the bill, but all five Republicans voted for it to advance. It now heads to a full Senate debate.

Democrats questioned the costs, and they blamed Congress for failing to address immigration during the past decade.

“It is not Arizona’s responsibility to act like Congress, and that’s what we’re doing again,” said Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said. “But shame on Congress, shame on Congress for not passing immigration reform. And we’ve seen what happened with SB1070, with the image of our state and the families that were divided.”