The big fizzle 

Angry anti-immigration forces were soundly beaten at the 2009 legislature. But that doesn’t mean they’re through.


It was the first week of the 2009 General Assembly, and the anti-illegal-immigration lobby — or the anti-immigrants-in-general lobby, depending on your perspective — had kicked off the session with a bang.

On the session's fourth day, Secure Arkansas, the most notable nativist group in the state, held a well-attended rally in the Capitol rotunda. Construction workers gathered to tell the press that immigrant wages were driving them out of jobs, and Jeannie Burlsworth, Secure Arkansas's leader, declaimed that Arkansans are sick of immigrants who tax their resources.

Secure Arkansas was unable to advance its goals during a 2008 ballot-initiative push, but that setback came more from its own procedural shortcomings than a lack of anti-immigrant feeling in the state. After the group failed several times to submit proper ballot language, the attorney general's office finally approved a proposed initiative that would have restricted state spending on services to immigrants. Though its drafting problems meant less time to collect signatures, Secure Arkansas gathered enough — about 6,000 shy of the 61,794 needed to make the ballot, Burlsworth said — to suggest its agenda is not a passing fad.

In the 2009 legislative session, that agenda was backed by an actual lawmaker, Rep. Bill Sample of Hot Springs, who had professional bill writers at his service to ensure the legal language would pass muster. Sample's handiwork, HB 1093, was a bill of massive ambition, an Oklahoma-style clampdown not just on undocumented immigrants but on people who provided any assistance to them, even unwittingly. It would have made it a felony to transport or attempt to transport an illegal alien; it would have made it a felony to shelter or harbor an illegal alien. It would have put strict requirements on contractors to check the immigration status of their labor forces. It would have required status checks for anyone charged with a DWI or a felony. It would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving most forms of public assistance.

There the debate began. To supporters, the legislation would rightfully prevent taxpayer money from going toward unauthorized foreigners. To opponents, it would turn the state a paler shade of white by discriminating against all immigrants, legal and illegal.

Sample filed HB 1093 on the second day of the session. The bill seemed to foreshadow a serious struggle. Secure Arkansas declared HB 1093 its number one legislative priority at its rally. Pro-immigrant groups stayed vigilant for weeks on end and sat through committee meetings where the bill might come up. Sample kept promising to call for a vote.

But a funny thing happened: nothing. Despite all the early fuss, HB 1093 went absolutely nowhere. Indeed, with the notable exception of the defeat of Sen. Joyce Elliott's bill to allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition — a measure laid low by the opposition of Gov. Mike Beebe — the Secure Arkansas immigration agenda proved dead on arrival. The only thing the anti-immigration crowd could push through was a Sample-sponsored restriction on the validity period of drivers licenses carried by immigrants, which itself was an extension of existing law. Even a bill that would have merely permitted the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board to punish contractors who use undocumented foreign labor flopped.

So a roaring start to 2009 turned into a whimper for those who would see Arkansas take a hard line on immigration. Two big questions linger: What caused the anti-immigration agenda to fizzle this session? And what lies ahead?



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