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Arizona House speaker pushes tighter limits on public benefits for migrants

By Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 - 8:05am
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 - 2:34pm

Man speaks at podium with group behind him
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma answers questions Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona took the first steps Monday to making it more difficult for those who have crossed the border illegally to get public benefits.

And that includes those who are seeking asylum and have been allowed to remain for the time being by the federal government.

On a party-line vote, members of the House Appropriations Committee tightened up existing statutes that already require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to determine the immigration status of those they hire. Violations could mean $10,000 fines and possible prison terms.

That vote came over objections from Democrats who said that some industries in Arizona already were having trouble finding people to work, including agriculture and home construction.

"What about basic fairness for hardworking Arizonans that actually comply with the law?'' House Speaker Ben Toma, who crafted the measure. "How can they afford to compete under those circumstances.''

"Our border is being overrun by illegal aliens,'' Toma said. 

Toma, who is running for Congress in the West Valley’s Congressional District 8, claimed inaction by President Joe Biden and Governor Katie Hobbs drove him to act.

Hobbs, who sent National Guard troops to communities near the border, said she believes his motivations were political. 

“I think what he’s proposing has more to do with his run for Congress than actually solving the problem, but I understand legislators’ frustrations in line with Arizonans’ frustrations about Washington’s failure to act,” Hobbs said. 

Toma’s comments came weeks after Republicans in Congress blocked bipartisan immigration legislation that was negotiated by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz)

State laws in effect since 2008 already require employers to use the federal E-Verify system to determine the legal status of applicants and workers. But Toma said there are too many loopholes in that law.

One provision in his HCR 2060 would make it a felony to "knowingly assist'' people in breaking the state's employment laws. And it would require the attorney general or county attorney to check complaints that companies are ignoring the law.

Natashia Townsend, testifying against the measure in the House Appropriations Committee, said this is about more than punishing employers. She cited the felony provisions for anyone who is found to have "obstructed'' the E-Verify program.

"Criminalizing those who are merely seeking a better life runs counter to the very principles of justice and fairness that should guide our legislative pursuits,'' Townsend told lawmakers.

"We have to consider the precedent that this sets that puts people in danger,''' said Rep. Lorena Austin, D-Mesa said. "It allows people to think of our community as 'other.'''

And Rep. Nancy Gutierres, D-Tucson, who is a teacher, said this only exacerbates the fear that families of legal and undocumented people have to do things like go to the doctor. Even those here legally are afraid that their family members will be targeted.

"That is the type of fear that we do not want for our state,'' she said.

HCR 2060 would go on the November ballot and bypass the need for approval by Gov. Katie Hobbs.

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