FRANKFORT — Opponents of an immigration bill filed Tuesday by Senate Republicans say it goes even further than a controversial Arizona law that has been challenged in federal court by President Barack Obama's administration.
Senate Bill 6 was one of several filed Tuesday that is backed by GOP leaders, who have said they hope to pass the measure by the end of this week. Other bills filed Tuesday include a proposal to create a panel that would recommend changes to the state's tax system and bills to tweak state pensions and election laws.
Those who oppose the immigration bill — which would allow police to ask if a person was in the country legally — began to rally against SB 6 on Tuesday, saying it appears to be more onerous than Arizona's immigration law. A judge has issued an injunction halting parts of the Arizona law, including the part that allows police to stop people and verify their immigration documents.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said Tuesday he would be open to hearing from anyone who has concerns about the bill.
Rev. Pat Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said the Kentucky measure includes a provision that would allow law enforcement to arrest an illegal immigrant for trespassing. The punishment for trespassing could range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C or Class D felony.
"That was originally in the Arizona law, but it was taken out," Delahanty said of the trespassing measure. "It's not a deportable offense."
The bill, filed by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, also creates criminal charges for smuggling illegal immigrants and "aiding and abetting" illegal immigrants.
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Kentucky Council of Churches, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center were either in the process or had already sent letters to state legislators opposing the bill.
The Catholic Conference of Kentucky, in its letters to senators, voiced concerns that if such a measure were passed, it could cause more harm than good.
"For example, seasoned law enforcement officials report that once they are forced to take on immigration enforcement, they believe immigrants, with whom they have established a degree of trust, will be afraid to report crime to them or help solve it," Delahanty said.
It's impossible to say how many illegal immigrants are in Kentucky, although several studies have placed the number between 26,000 and 45,000. However, studies show that Kentucky has one of the smallest illegal immigrant populations. For example, California is estimated to have 2.7 million illegal immigrants compared to 45,000 in Kentucky, according to a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center study.
County officials have also expressed concern about whether the bill would add to the county jail and state prison population at a time when the state is looking to reduce prison and jail costs. But many county officials said this week that they had not yet seen the bill and could not comment on it.
Michael Bischoff, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, said the police chiefs have not seen the bill and will not meet until later this month to discuss their legislative agenda.
Bischoff said he thinks it may be difficult to get the state's police chiefs to agree on the issue. In Arizona, many in law enforcement opposed the measure while others support it.
"It is not something that everyone is going to be for or against," Bischoff said. "There are certain areas of the state that have this issue. In their opinion, something more needs to be done to address this issue. There are others that believe that this is a federal issue, and in these economic times, they do not have the resources to address this issue."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said early Tuesday he could not comment on the fate of the Republican bills because he had not seen them. But Stumbo said the Democratic House generally does not take up the Senate's bills until the Senate passes House bills.
Three Senate committees are expected to take up some of the GOP proposals Wednesday. Williams said the Senate is likely to vote on them Thursday and Friday.