Drive to put immigration law on ballot abandoned

CARSON CITY -- A proposal that would have made Nevada a battleground state in controversial efforts to control illegal immigration is dead.

Assemblyman Chad Christensen is abandoning his petition drive to put an Arizona-style immigration law on the books in this state, citing costly lawsuits.

"The legal challenges from various entities would make it virtually impossible to gather the signatures by November of this year," said the Las Vegas Republican, who was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Nevada Resort Association, Hispanic legislators and others over his petition.

He had faced an Aug. 9 hearing in Carson City District Court to hear the lawsuits. Christensen would have been required in coming days to file legal briefs in response to those challenges.

The lawsuits delayed his ability to circulate petitions and made it impossible for him and his supporters to collect the 97,002 signatures needed by Nov. 9 to qualify the petition, according to Ron Futrell, a spokesman for Christensen and a member of his petition committee.

Like the Arizona law being challenged by the federal government, Christensen's proposal would have allowed police to stop and check the immigration status of suspects first cited for other violations.

It also would have penalized employers who knowingly hire illegal residents and required people to show a photo ID before they could vote.

The Arizona law, set to take effect July 29, already faces legal challenges from two police officers, other groups and the U.S. Justice Department, which contends the law usurps the federal government's "pre-eminent authority" under the Constitution to regulate immigration.

The law's backers say Congress is not doing anything meaningful about illegal immigration, so it's the state's duty to step up. They object to social costs and violence they say are associated with illegal immigration.

Futrell said he was hopeful Nevada legislators in 2011 would adopt a similar law, but noted that twice Christensen unsuccessfully sought to pass a bill to deny state benefits to illegal residents.

While it is often stated that illegal immigrants perform jobs that citizens won't, Futrell said many residents would take any job in today's depressed economy.

But Maggie McLetchie, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said her organization would oppose any attempt to bring Arizona's immigration law to Nevada at the next legislative session.

"Importing the unconstitutional Arizona law to Nevada would improperly hamper law enforcement and subject Nevada to costly litigation at a time when there is no money to spare," she said.

Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said his lawsuit against the petition would have prevailed because the petition violated the law that specifies petitions can deal only with a single subject. A federal judge upheld that law earlier this month.

Denis, who is unopposed in a bid for the state Senate, also noted that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimated Hispanic tourism is worth $1.5 billion a year to Nevada.

"We were concerned about the huge economic impact," he said. "We are struggling as a state and we cannot afford to lose any more business."

McLetchie said Nevada cannot afford a boycott or to send a message to visitors that people who appear foreign are not welcome here.

Denis said illegal residents pay state taxes like anyone else and few people complained about their presence when the state economy was booming.

He said that today there is better enforcement at the borders and a decline in the number of illegal residents in the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.