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Rep. Darin Mitchell, R-Litchfield Park, said requiring Arizona Department of Corrections officers to be U.S. citizens would help ease unemployment in his district, which stretches to Yuma. (Photo by Juan Magana/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX -- A state lawmaker wants to require Arizona Department of Corrections officers to be U.S. citizens, as is already the case with other peace officers, saying the change would help ease unemployment in his district.

"It's about certain citizenship advantages that you have," said Rep. Darin Mitchell, R-Litchfield Park, whose district stretches to Yuma. "You were a citizen, you were born there, shouldn't you at least have a first dib at that job? That's all we're saying."

The Yuma area had an unemployment rate of 27.1 percent in December, highest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee endorsed HB 2133 on a party-line vote Wednesday despite concerns raised by Will Barnow, legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Barnow told the panel that his agency has approximately 400 officers who are permanent legal residents of the U.S. and could face a limited applicant pool if it becomes law. He also said that over the next year the Department of Corrections expects to hire an additional 1,000 workers.

"One of the things we know is that if we don't have officers to fill positions, we have to do other things like mandate overtime, leave positions vacant, which obviously creates a public safety risk and reduces morale among the officers," he said.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who voted for the bill, said there are certain positions that should be held by U.S. citizens because of the sensitivity of their duties.

"I think that we obviously believe that there are certain positions where citizenship is a requirement, and I think there is a valid discussion that needs to happen to decide whether these types of peace officer positions should require that kind of a standard," he said.

But Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, one of three Democrats voting against the bill, said it would prevent veterans who aren't U.S. citizens from being able to obtain jobs in a career field that values their experience.

"I'm going to fight this all the way to the end because it's really disgusting that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war that still can't become citizens because there's time requirements are going to be precluded from a good, decent paying job, especially at a time when the Department of Corrections are saying they are short of people who are qualified to take this job," he said.

Gallego suggested defining a period of time before a permanent legal resident can become a peace officer in order to ensure a solid background check.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, said he doesn't see a point to the bill.

"This doesn't create jobs, it won't reduce the unemployment rate," he said. "You would just switch one employee at the expense of another."

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