Effort to punish human smugglers could end up criminalizing undocumented parents

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Republican proposals seeking to criminalize anyone transporting or illegally immigrating with undocumented minors are moving unimpeded through the legislature. 

A bill conflating child sex crimes and smuggling elicited outrage from Democratic legislators during a Thursday hearing, who said that packaging the two issues in one bill is misleading.  

“If we’re going to talk about transporting and human smuggling, let’s talk about that. If we want to talk about child sex crimes, let’s talk about that — but let’s not shove those two issues in one bill for one vote,” Sen. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, said. 

House Bill 2696 increases imprisonment terms for crimes against children, and expands the definition of human smuggling to anyone knowingly transporting people who are not U.S. citizens and are either attempting to enter the country or remain in it illegally. It designates the action a class 3 felony, which can lead to a prison sentence of anywhere from 2 to 8 years for first-time offenders

The bill also increases the punishments for sexual abuse crimes against children, and restricts the eligibility of those convicted for such crimes for sentence suspension, probation and early releases. It passed the full House on Feb. 23 with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Its first hurdle in the Senate, however, was met with much less consensus. 

Rep. Leo Biasiucci, the bill’s sponsor, spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, saying the measure was intended to rectify insufficient sentencing practices. The Lake Havasu City Republican said it was a joint effort with Gov. Doug Ducey’s office to address the recent increases in what he termed “human smuggling.” 

“We’ve all come to realize over the last year or two that (it) has been on the uptick, and we needed to really put the hammer down,” he said.  

Census report in December analyzed immigration trends between 2020 and 2021, and found that the number of foreign immigrant entries were drastically reduced compared to the previous decade, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of land borders in March 2020. The report also says that even before those factors reduced immigration, numbers were on the decline from their peak in 2015 and 2016. 

Stahl Hamilton objected to the the provision that classifies transporting undocumented persons as human smuggling. It is written so broadly that it would turn anyone giving an undocumented person a ride in their car into a human smuggling operation, she said. 

Sen. Martin Quezada pointed out the bill would affect families in many cases, not criminals. 

“These are family members that people are going to be transporting —- taking to school, taking to the doctor, visiting other family, taking to the park — and now they’re going to be charged as human smugglers?” the Glendale Democrat said. 

2019 Migration Policy Institute profile of Arizona estimates that 22,000 undocumented parents live in the state with only undocumented children. Thousands more families have mixed composition, with some members being undocumented and others being citizens.

The bill was passed 4-3 along party lines, and will next be considered by the full Senate.

Another measure punishing those traveling with undocumented minors is Senate Bill 1445. The bill would expand the definition of child abuse and endangerment to include smuggling. 

Anyone crossing U.S. borders with children in tow would be at risk of jail time, and under current law, child endangerment and abuse convictions face a minimum of 10 years imprisonment. 

Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, denounced the bill as a targeted attack against immigrating parents during a full Senate hearing of several legislative proposals on Wednesday. 

“This bill criminalizes a parent as a child abuser for bringing their child across the border as they possibly flee prosecution, hunger, poverty and every other type of life threatening circumstance,” she said. 

The measure passed the full Senate Wednesday on a 16-12 party-line vote. It has been sent to the House for consideration.

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

Photo by Jordan Glenn

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