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Babeu says Senate immigration bill needs to focus on border security

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WASHINGTON – Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu dismissed a Senate immigration reform bill Thursday, urging House members to back an alternative plan instead that focuses on law enforcement and gives more authority to local police.

Babeu, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, said the so-called “Gang of 8″ bill currently being debated in the Senate does not do enough to secure the border, which is critically important to residents of his county.

“We must secure the border first, prior to any discussion of green cards and a path to citizenship,” for the millions of people in this country illegally, he said.

But while Babeu testified that the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act would help secure the border, other witnesses said it would open the door to racial profiling by police. The bill also mimics parts of Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law, which was partially overturned by the Supreme Court last year.

Karen Tumlin, of the National Immigration Law Center, said the high court ruled then that states cannot create their own immigration rules, and that law enforcement can only ask about a person’s legal status during lawful encounters. The SAFE Act would put too much power in the hands of local law enforcement, she said.

“There’s a difference between assisting and leading” federal authorities, Tumlin said in response to a question.

She said she had numerous stories from people who were stopped for traffic violations in Alabama because of the color of their skin, after that state passed an immigration law similar to SB 1070. SAFE would effectively do that again, she said.

She also claimed the bill could criminalize otherwise innocent behavior, making it a crime for someone here legally to drive to the store with a family member who is here illegally.

“Do we want to prosecute … acts of kindness?” she asked.

The committee heard from eight witnesses, most of whom testified in support of the House bill. Witnesses included immigration advocates, police, prosecutors and two parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants – one of whom had two drunken driving convictions before he hit and killed Sabine Durden’s son.

Babeu said as many as 30 percent of the illegal immigrants who were apprehended in the Tucson sector of the border had a criminal record in the U.S.

Pinal County deputies chase cartel members almost on a regular basis, said Babeu, adding that his office has received warnings that Mexican cartels were going to send assassins to the county to execute other cartel members.

Babeu and other supporters of the House bill said it would make it harder for terrorists to enter the United States.

“Under the bill, no immigration benefits can be provided to immigrants until all required background and security checks are completed,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said during the hearing.

Goodlatte said the Senate immigration reform plan does not ensure background and security checks, requirements that he said are necessary in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

But supporters of the Senate bill have insisted that their plan would dedicate additional funds to border enforcement and that it requires a secure border before any of the other provisions can take effect. Those measures include a path to naturalization for people here illegally if they pay fees and back taxes and go through years of waiting.

Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake were members of the bipartisan gang, which includes four Democrats and four Republicans. They did not respond to a request Thursday for comment on Babeu’s testimony.

Babeu told the House committee that the Gang of 8 bill repeats history, pointing to a 1986 immigration reform plan that granted amnesty to 2 million immigrants who were in the country illegally but did little to keep others from following in their footsteps.

He urged the committee to back the SAFE Act so his deputies and other law enforcement agencies could arrest drug and human traffickers. That’s particularly important in Pinal County, which he called the “No. 1 pass-through county for drug and human trafficking” in the country.

The bill, “will gave law enforcement and communities the power we need to keep our citizens safe,” Babeu said.