LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
The Arkansas attorney general’s office cleared the way on Wednesday for supporters of a ballot measure requiring government agencies to verify all those seeking public benefits in the state are legal U.S. residents to begin gathering signatures.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel approved the language of the proposed initiated act by Secure Arkansas, allowing the group to begin collecting the 61,974 signatures necessary to put it before voters in November.
Jeannie Burlsworth, a chairwoman for Secure Arkansas, has said the group plans to collect many of the signatures at polling places during the state’s May 20 primary.
If approved by voters, the proposal would require those older than 13 seeking public benefits from a state agency to sign an oath saying they live legally in the country. The group says those who falsely fill out an affidavit could face perjury charges. Verification would not be required for emergency medical treatment, prenatal care or public school enrollment.
Burlsworth said Wednesday she hopes to begin distributing petitions to supporters around the state as soon as Wednesday.
“We’ve got a real grassroots effort and we will get the signatures we need. This is just one huge mountain we had to tackle and we’ve got something in place to see this through,” she said.
Burlsworth said she hoped to boost fundraising for the measure and may hire workers to help gather signatures. Secure Arkansas said that it had raised only $800.17 in March, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state Ethics Commission.
Gov. Mike Beebe would not say Wednesday whether he supports or opposes the measure, but said that some of the proposals in the measure may already be included in state law.
“There are a lot of similarities with existing law and existing regulations between what the previous initiated act proposal had in it and what’s already the practice and law in Arkansas. … To the extent it already is the law, it becomes redundant and to the extent that it’s different, people should have the opportunity to look at that,” Beebe said.
The group submitted the proposed ballot measure to McDaniel’s office Friday, two days after he had rejected a version of the initiative for the second time. McDaniel was out of the state and unavailable to comment on the proposal, a spokesman for his office said.
McDaniel had rejected earlier versions of the measure because he said parts of it were unclear and because he said its length could make it vulnerable to a legal challenge.
The push for the measure comes as Arkansas continues to have one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the nation. Studies have concluded about half of Arkansas’ immigrant population lives in the state illegally.
Testimony last year concluded that Arkansas pays $170 million a year to educate, imprison and provide services to all immigrants, with the majority of money going toward education. But that estimate of state costs remains a fraction of immigrants’ estimated economic power in the state.
The Arkansas Friendship Coalition, a group opposed to any local or statewide immigration enforcement legislation, has said it will campaign against the initiated act.
Steve Copley, the coalition’s chairman, said he believes the proposal will be a “litmus test” for how Arkansans feel about immigration but said he believed it would be difficult for supporters to gather the signatures necessary by the July 7 deadline.
The coalition includes three of Arkansas’ largest business interests, Alltel Corp., Tyson Foods Inc. and Stephens Inc., as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and state appeals court judge Wendell Griffen.
“It unfairly penalizes (immigrants),” Copley said. “We think it would have a negative impact on the state of Arkansas because of the way it’s unfairly targeting folks.”
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