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Updated Feb 12, 2014 - 2:54 pm

Arizona bill could exclude legal residents from corrections jobs

PHOENIX -- Arizona Republicans in a House committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would require state corrections and detention officers to be American citizens, eliminating potential candidates who are legal permanent residents.

House Bill 2133, sponsored by Republican Rep. Darin Mitchell, drew criticism from committee Democrats who say the bill pits U.S. citizens versus permanent legal residents while also excluding military veterans who typically perform such jobs.

The House Committee on Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs approved the bill 5-3. The legislation would also require proof of citizenship for all peace officers.

Mitchell says the bill aims to reduce unemployment for U.S. citizens by giving them priority over non-citizens.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, said the bill will send a message that Arizona is not an inclusive state. ``We're a better country than trying to pit one class of people against another, and legal permanent residents are type of people,'' Gallego said.

The bill comes after the recent discovery that a long-time Arizona State Police detective was living in the country illegally.

Carmen Figueroa apparently was told by her family that she was born in the U.S. though she was actually born in Sinaloa, Mexico. Her status was discovered when the State Department processed a passport application submitted by her brother, who is serving in the U.S. military. Figueroa resigned in December.

Committee members brought the case up at the hearing. An official from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board called it an embarrassment at the meeting but said it was an anomaly and that officers already go through rigorous background investigations, including citizenship checks.

An official from the state Department of Corrections said there are currently 450 open positions that agencies have struggled to fill, adding that the bill would put a strain on recruitment efforts.

What's more, the department currently employs about 400 officers who are permanent legal residents, legislative liaison Will Barnow said. The department employs 6,100 officers. The bill would not be retroactive.

The bill was opposed by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which certifies police officers and establishes standards for state correctional officers.

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