PHOENIX - State lawmakers voted late Thursday to repeal one of the more controversial provisions from the new law aimed at illegal immigration.
It was among the last things lawmakers did before adjourning the regular legislative session about 11 p.m.
HB 2162, approved by the House and Senate, changes the law to specify that when deciding whom to question about immigration status, police may not use race, ethnicity or national origin as a factor.
That is a significant change from SB 1070 as it was approved by lawmakers and signed less than a week ago by Gov. Jan Brewer. That version of the law permits police to consider any of those factors when deciding if there is "reasonable suspicion" someone is not in this country legally, as long as it is not the only reason for investigating further.
Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, defended the original provision as being relevant, saying 90 percent of those in this country illegally are from Mexico and points south.
But by Thursday, after the filing of two lawsuits challenging the new law on several grounds, including racial profiling, Pearce backed off. He said the provision is probably unnecessary, as the U.S. Constitution already precludes racial profiling.
What the change does, Pearce said, is remove a target for foes, both those in court and those criticizing the measure in speeches and demonstrations.
"I'm just tired of the games played by the left," he said. Pearce said making the change and leaving pretty much everything else the same "strengthens the bill's ability of being enforced without letting the left leverage bad stuff."
But another change negotiated between Brewer and legislators could have an even more sweeping effect.
As originally approved, SB 1070 requires police to determine the immigration status of those with whom they have "lawful contact" if there is reasonable suspicion the person is not here legally.
That "reasonable suspicion" language remains. But the language about "contact" is replaced with a reference to "stop, detention or arrest." Paul Senseman, the governor's spokesman, said the changes effectively reduce checking immigration status to "secondary enforcement."
"There have to be other steps, such as another law being broken first," he said, before an officer could, with reasonable suspicion, inquire if a person is a citizen or legal resident.
He compared it to Arizona's seat-belt laws: Police cannot stop a motorist solely because the person is unbuckled. But officers can issue a ticket for failing to buckle up if the driver is stopped for some other reason.
Senseman said both charges are designed to undermine lawsuits seeking to have the law overturned on the premise that it allows officers to stop and question anyone who looks like an illegal immigrant. He said the secondary enforcement language strengthens provisions in the original bill designed to reassure illegal immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses that they can call police without being asked about their legal status.
The language in HB 2162 cannot amend SB 1070, which has been signed into law. But since SB 1070 won't take effect until 90 days from now, putting the altered verbiage into the other bill means that, when both become law on the same day, the later-adopted revisions will take precedence.
Pearce said he doesn't believe either change will make it harder for an officer to question someone who is suspected of being an illegal immigrant. "The reason we made these clarifications is to make it a stronger case in court," he said. "This is a tough bill. We didn't water it down."