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Arizona voters to decide whether to make border crossing by noncitizens a state crime

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The GOP-controlled Arizona Legislature on Tuesday approved a proposal to ask voters to weigh in on a ballot measure this fall to make it a state crime for noncitizens to enter the state through Mexico at any location outside of a port of entry.

Hours earlier, President Biden unveiled plans to restrict the number of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border

"This action will help to gain control of our border, restore order to the process," Mr. Biden said.

The Arizona measure, approved by the state House on a 31-29 vote, would allow state and local police to arrest people crossing the border without authorization. State judges would also have the power to order people convicted of unauthorized border crossing to return to their countries of origin.

The state House voted along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor of the proposal and all Democrats voting against it. The measure bypasses Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who vetoed a similar measure in early March and has criticized the effort to bring the issue to voters.

House Republicans closed access to the upper gallery of the chamber before the session started Tuesday, citing concerns about security and possible disruptions. The move immediately drew the criticism of Democrats, who demanded that the gallery be reopened.

"The public gallery should be open to the public. This is the people's House," said state Rep. Analise Ortiz.

The bill's supporters said it was necessary to ensure security along the state's southern border, and that Arizona voters should be given the opportunity to decide the issue themselves.

"We need this bill and we must act on it," said state Rep. John Gillette, a Republican.

Opponents called the legislation unconstitutional and would lead to racial profiling, separating children from parents and incur several millions of dollars in additional policing costs that the state can ill afford.

"It is not a solution. It is election year politics," said Rep. Mariana Sandoval, a Democrat.

The proposal is similar to a Texas law that has been put on hold by a federal appeals court while it's being challenged. The Arizona Senate approved the proposal on a 16-13 party-line vote.

While federal law already prohibits the unauthorized entry of migrants into the U.S., proponents of the measure say it's needed because the federal government's efforts to stop people from crossing illegally over Arizona's vast, porous border with Mexico have fallen short. 

The backers also say the measure focuses only on the state's border region and — unlike Arizona's landmark 2010 immigration law — doesn't target people throughout the state. But opponents counter that the proposal doesn't contain any geographical limitations on where it can be enforced within the state.

The Arizona measure contains other provisions that aren't included in the Texas measure and aren't directly related to immigration. Those include making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for selling fentanyl that leads to a person's death, and a requirement that some government agencies use a federal database to verify a noncitizen's eligibility for benefits.

Under the current proposal, a first-time conviction of the border-crossing provision would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. State judges could order people to return to their countries of origin after finishing their incarceration, although the courts would have the power to dismiss cases if those arrested agree to return home.

The measure would require the state corrections department to take into custody people who are charged or convicted under the measure if local or county law enforcement agencies don't have enough space to house them. It includes exceptions for people who have been granted lawful presence status or asylum by the federal government.

The Arizona provision allowing for the arrests of border crossers in between ports would not take effect until the Texas law or similar laws from other states have been in effect for 60 days.

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