LINCOLN, Neb. — Redistricting and how to close a growing budget gap are getting heavy attention going into Nebraska's new legislative session, but another issue could soon steal the spotlight: an Arizona-style immigration measure.
State Sen. Charlie Janssen, of Fremont, plans to introduce the bill in the early weeks of session, which begins next Wednesday.
Arizona's law requires police officers, when enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
Critics say the Arizona law encourages racial profiling. A federal judge blocked sections of the law in July, including provisions calling for police to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws and requiring immigrants to prove they are in the United States legally.
That has not dissuaded Janssen, who said his bill would vary from the Arizona law. He declined to elaborate, saying he and his staff were still crafting the bill.
"I've been working with the attorney general's office on it," Janssen said. "I want to get something out there that will pass and will be upheld."
There has been a steady stream of Hispanics into Nebraska since the early 1990s, with many working in the meatpacking industry. They now account for about 8 percent of the state's population. From 2000 to 2008, Hispanics were responsible for about 64 percent of the state's population growth.
Janssen's district includes Fremont, home of two meatpacking plants and where voters in June approved an ordinance barring landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and businesses from hiring them.
The Fremont law was supposed to take effect in July, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund sued to get it thrown out, contending that the ordinance is discriminatory and contrary to state law.
Janssen's bill could find support in the nonpartisan, conservative Legislature. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who has taken a hard line against illegal immigration in the past, has said he would support a state measure similar to Arizona's illegal-immigration law.
Janssen's bill must pass through the Legislature's Judiciary Committee before the full Legislature can vote on it, and he already has some support among committee members.
Janssen said committee chairman Brad Ashford, of Omaha, has been receptive. And Sen. Mark Christensen, of Imperial, who is also a Judiciary Committee member, said he would back Janssen's bill.
"School aid has been stripped from western Nebraska. Who's paying for illegal immigrants to go to school?" Christensen asked. "The state don't pay for them. You're just shoving more expense at legal residents and taxpayers."
Christensen said that while he wants to crack down on illegal immigrants, he wants to see the federal government simplify the immigration process so that people can more easily — and legally — move to the United States.
"The state and feds have dropped the ball," he said. "They make it next to impossible to come here legally. We need a way they can become legal through a defined process."
But several Democrats serving on the committee are likely to oppose Janssen's measure.
Said state Sen. Brenda Council, of Omaha: "This is a federal issue, and it should be left to federal officials to take care of it."
Such a contentious measure promises to bring costly legal challenges, no small matter to legislators who will struggle to mend the state's hemorrhaging budget. Some projections say the state will face a $1.4 billion gap over the next two budget years.
"I think, in general, this is an idea that doesn't resonate with Nebraskans," said Becky Gould, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.
The Arizona law is proving expensive not only in court, but to state revenue as thousands of people boycott the state over the law's passage.
"Even from an economic development standpoint, passing these kinds of laws can be really toxic for the business community," Gould said.
Despite those arguments, Janssen said, he believes his proposal has a good chance to pass in 2011.
"It's time to get something like this to the legislative floor," Janssen said. "This is something the people in my district — and the state of Nebraska — want to see done."
Nebraska Legislature: http://nebraskalegislature.gov/