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Arizona Republican Vows to Keep Trying to Slam Prison Doors on Illegal Immigrants

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, left, speaks with Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, prior to a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol on Nov. 9, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Arizona Sen. Steve Smith (R) has tried and failed for a second time to shame his fellow GOPers into voting for Grant’s Law, legislation that he said was deceptively simple: it would guarantee, Smith said, that illegal immigrants convicted of felonies would go to prison for longer terms.

But he isn’t giving up. Smith said he would try to find a way to either introduce the legislation in the Arizona House this year or make another attempt in the Senate in 2018.

“Lord knows we have enough criminals in this country. We don’t need to import more,” Smith said during a speech after the Senate had rejected SB 1279.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent out a frantic email pitch to its membership in February warning them Smith was trying again to win approval for Grant’s Law. The ACLU said in its email that the legislation was nothing but an unconstitutional stab at “padding the pockets of prison operators.”

The legislation proposed longer terms for illegal immigrants than legal residents, along with ineligibility for parole or probation — terms that opponents of the bill called unconstitutional.

Smith said it was a “two-sentence bill” that says if “you are in our country illegally, which means you have already broken the law once, or you’ve overstayed your welcome, but you’ve broken it.”

“You didn’t just come here to make a better life for yourself, you went on to commit and were convicted of a felony in a court of law,” Smith added. “It says if you are in our country illegally and are convicted of a felony, you are going to jail.”

As PJM reported nearly a year ago, Smith has tried before to get SB 1279 approved by the Arizona Senate. It failed by a single vote.

This time, the legislation was defeated in the Senate by two votes.

Smith named the bill after Grant Ronnebeck, a 21-year-old man who was shot and killed while working as a convenience store clerk in January 2015. A suspect charged with the crime was in the United States illegally. He was released by ICE pending an immigration hearing.

KTVK reported the accused killer, Apolinar Altamirano, was scheduled to stand trial for murder and other charges in March.

“That same illegal alien previously broke into a woman’s home, held her hostage for about a week, sexually assaulted her and was given felony probation for that crime,” Smith said during an emotional 20-minute speech before a vote on his legislation, March 9. “He didn’t serve a day in jail. Then he found himself in front of Grant R. and murdered him.”

“If this bill had been in effect, then I believe Grant would have been alive today,” said Smith.

During his speech, Smith introduced Grant’s father and brother, who had come to the capitol to support the bill. He also introduced the mother of a police officer who had been murdered by an illegal immigrant and a woman whose daughter was murdered by an illegal alien from Russia.

“I have a paper here that lists 75 Arizona residents who have been murdered or seriously injured by illegal aliens,” Smith said.

Smith also criticized three of his fellow Senate Republicans who had cast votes against SB 1279.

One of those who sat quietly while being castigated by Smith during his speech, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R), told the Arizona Republic after the Senate vote that she did not regret voting “no” a second time in two years on Grant’s Law.

“I feel horrible about what has happened to Grant and these families, but I truly believe this bill is unconstitutional,” Brophy McGee said.

Sen. Bob Worsley, another Republican who voted against SB 1279, told the AP Smith was wrong to assert that his legislation would have saved Grant Ronnebeck’s life.

“The 1996, the 2016 or the 2017 bills that we’re discussing here, none of those would have saved Grant’s life, and that’s the travesty of the whole show that we had on the floor today,” Worsley said. “None of these facts in his horrendous murder of my constituent in Mesa would have been corrected by any of these bills.”

Arizona Senate Democrats were outraged by Smith’s performance. Sen. Katie Hobbs said it was ridiculous that Smith said the Senate should apologize to the victims’ families for making them relive the attacks on their loved ones.

“He is the one who put them in that position. He brought them there, knowing full well that he didn’t have the votes. He used them for his own political purposes,” Hobbs told the Arizona Republic. “That is shameful.”

But Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen, who voted in favor of Grant’s Law, did apologize to the family members of victims of attacks and murders by undocumented immigrants. Allen didn’t say she was sorry for making them relive the tragedies that had ripped apart their lives.

Allen apologized for the Senate’s failure to approve Grant’s Law.

“It always comes to politics,” she said.