Arizona's tough new law aimed at illegal immigrants is rekindling debate about the issue in Kentucky, but there's little legislative sentiment to follow the Grand Canyon State's lead.
Lawmakers who have supported previous attempts to crack down on illegal immigration at the state level say the Kentucky General Assembly isn't likely to approve a law that allows local police to detain people they suspect are in the country illegally.
But they say recent developments should cause Kentucky to consider more carefully other legislative proposals aimed at the illegal immigration issue. "I've filed a number of bills to try to alleviate (the illegal immigration) problem in Kentucky and we've never got much traction on it," said state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington.
Members of the Lexington-based group Kentuckians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, which supports the Arizona law, say Kentucky lawmakers should first pass a measure that would penalize business owners if they don't verify the immigration status of their employees, said president Douglas Roy.
"We're not experiencing the level of violence that Arizona is seeing," Roy said. ''But we will if we don't do anything."
The renewed interest in illegal immigration is a worrisome development for immigrant advocates, who have successfully turned back previous attempts to enforce immigration laws at the state level.
Officials with the Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights issued a statement this week condemning the Arizona law as racial profiling and urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform to prevent other states from following suit.
The group is also calling for federal intervention to keep the Arizona law from being enacted.
"We condemn the law and the fervor that went into passing it," said Rachel Newton, an immigration attorney and a board member for the coalition.
Newton said she was concerned about the law's effect on Kentucky.
"Fear makes way and ignorance makes way for these kinds of proposals to gain traction," she said.
The Arizona law, which takes effect later this year, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a misdemeanor crime and give the police the ability to detain people they suspected of not having legal documentation.
It also allows people to file lawsuits against state or local government officials and agencies on the grounds that immigration law is not being followed.
Brian Rich, another board member of the immigrant rights group and a Transylvania University sociology professor, said he thought the Arizona law was unconstitutional.
"State and localities don't have jurisdiction to regulate matters of federal immigration policy," Rich said.
Rich said the immigrant rights group was also concerned that anyone who provides transportation to, conceals, harbors, or otherwise shields an undocumented person could be prosecuted as well.
Lee said he thinks federal law already requires non-citizens to carry immigration documents with them, but he said state and local law enforcement in Kentucky have shown a "real reluctance to enforce federal laws."
Lee and state Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, have previously pushed a proposal that would punish employers with government contracts who didn't verify an employee's immigration status through a federal database. They've also proposed to let local law enforcement agencies apply for funds to help them use the federal 287(g) program, which allows local agencies to designate officers who enforce federal immigration laws.
The bill regarding employers was passed by the state House, but it didn't get support in the Senate. The bill making it easier for local police to enforce federal immigration laws never made it out of a House committee, despite several hearings.
"If we couldn't pass that, I don't know that we could pass anything much stronger," Damron said. "... We need to get a handle on our illegal alien problems."
In Lexington, police don't ask about an immigrant's status unless that person is already under arrest.
Under a policy initiated by Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry on Feb. 1, 2008, the Fayette County Detention Center sends a daily report to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office that identifies all people booked that day who were born outside the United States. ICE has the option of issuing an order to detain an individual so that it can pursue possible immigration law violations.
Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409.