FRANKFORT, Ky. - Kentucky legislators took a first step Thursday toward a crackdown on illegal immigrants, advancing a bill that would give police broad authority to check the immigration status of people they stop.
In its first test of support, the measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 8-3 vote after a lengthy discussion in which one opponent branded it as a "12th century bill of rights."
The bill, Senate Bill 6, now heads to the full Senate, where it has the support of Republican leaders who set the chamber's agenda. The legislation is an outgrowth of a controversial Arizona immigration law that is facing legal challenge.
The Kentucky rendition would allow law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of someone when "reasonable suspicion" exists that the person is an illegal immigrant.
The proposal would allow police to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges for setting foot in Kentucky.
That tough approach was hailed by Northern Kentucky tea party activist Jim Dugan, who told the committee: "These are people that commit criminal acts. So how you can defend criminals is beyond me."
Sen. John Schickel, the bill's sponsor, said Kentuckians shouldn't suffer from the federal government's inability or unwillingness to fully enforce immigration laws.
"It puts the heat on the federal government to respond to this crisis that we have," said Schickel, R-Union, Ky.
Supporters said the influx of illegal immigrants causes a drain on education and social services.
There's a cost to individuals as well, they said. People pay higher health insurance bills to offset the health costs of uninsured illegal immigrants, while some are involved in auto wrecks with uninsured illegal immigrants, they said.
"There's a tremendous amount of death and maiming and hurt and harm to American citizens from illegal aliens," said Douglas Roy, president of Kentuckians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement.
Opponents called the bill an intrusion into a federal issue that would saddle the state prison system and local governments with more expenses. One critic flatly said the measure was politically motivated.
"I don't see the rush here other than an election coming up," said opponent Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville.
The bill is supported by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who is running for governor this year.
"This is like the 12th century bill of rights," Clark said while railing against the bill. "... We're doing this on ancedotal evidence, we're doing this on fear."
Marilyn Daniel, an immigration attorney from Lexington, said Kentucky's image would take a beating from such a law.
Arizona was hit by boycotts brought on by its immigration crackdown. A report late last year said the boycott had cost the state $141 million in lost meeting and convention business since April, when the law was signed by the state's governor.
"In an economic downturn, Kentucky does not deserve the kind of publicity and national notice that will come with the passage of a bill like this," Daniel said. "So I ask you, please don't do that to us at this time."
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