Legislator fights lawsuits over initiative petition on immigration issue

CARSON CITY — The state legislator who wants Nevada to adopt Arizona’s controversial immigration law said Thursday he has not yet circulated petitions because he must first raise money to fight lawsuits.

Assemblyman Chad Christensen, R-Las Vegas, said he has been sued by several large organizations, including the Nevada Resort Association and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, over his initiative petition that would allow police to check identification of people suspected of being illegal immigrants.

He said he is not wealthy and it is not easy facing off against organizations with a lot of money.

"I expect to begin circulating petitions soon," said Christensen, who was defeated in the June 8 primary election for U.S. Senate. "We have no shortage of volunteers."

A June 1-3 Review-Journal poll showed that 57 percent of registered voters in Nevada would support an immigration law like Arizona’s. The poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. showed that 32 percent would oppose such a measure, with 11 percent undecided.

Christensen intends to rely largely on volunteers to collect the 97,000 signatures he needs by Nov. 9 to qualify the petition for a future ballot.

But first he has an Aug. 9 court date before District Judge James Wilson in Carson City over a lawsuit filed against the petition by the Nevada Open for Business Coalition, a group headed by two Hispanic Assembly members, Mo Denis and Ruben Kihuen, both Las Vegas Democrats. Other groups opposed to the petition have joined that lawsuit.

Wilson could decide to let the petition move forward or require Christensen to make word changes before he circulates it.

Even if Christensen wins, his opponents probably will appeal to the state Supreme Court, a step which would reduce the time he has to circulate the Nevada Immigration Verification petition.

Christensen faces a formidable task qualifying his petition through the use of volunteers. In recent years, groups in Nevada that used volunteers exclusively have failed to secure sufficient signatures.

In addition, lawsuits have been filed against virtually every petition and these lawsuits generally have prevailed. No petitions to make changes to the constitution qualified for the ballot this November.

Christensen is seeking to change a law, not the state constitution. If he secures sufficient signatures, then it would be up to the Legislature next year to implement or reject his petition. If legislators refuse to adopt it, the matter would be placed before voters in the 2012 election.

The lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice filed against Arizona earlier this week shows how embarrassed the Obama administration has become of its failure to enforce immigration laws, according to Christensen.

"It completely has ignored doing its job," Christensen said. "A state had to rise up and say, ‘We’re tried of waiting for the federal government to do its job.’ "

Christensen said there are four key points to his petition and the Arizona law:

■ Law enforcement officers can verify the legal status of individuals;

■ Companies that knowingly hire illegal residents will be penalized;

■ State benefits such as welfare and unemployment will be denied to illegal residents;

■ People must show a photo ID before they can vote.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security study earlier this year estimated there are 260,000 illegal residents in Nevada, or about 10 percent of the state population. On a per capita basis, Nevada has more illegal residents than Arizona, according to Christensen.

Information about the petition may be found on the noillegals.org website. The site, however, has little information about the petition and is more about Christensen’s failed U.S. Senate campaign.

Denis, who is unopposed in a bid for the state Senate, said it is clear that Christensen’s petition violates the "single-subject rule" since it deals with police, businesses, voting and other subjects.

Opponents to petitions frequently have won in Nevada courts because the petitions deal with multiple subjects, contrary to state law.

The description that explains the intent of Christensen’s petition also is confusing, Denis said.

One sentence reads the intent of the petition is to "make attrition" through enforcement of public policy by law enforcement officers.

Denis said the Nevada Resort Association and other business groups have joined his lawsuit because of their concern that passage of the petition might lead to boycotts of casinos and conventions by Hispanic people and groups.

He said the Arizona law is not yet in effect, but already business people there have complained they have lost $100 million in potential convention and tourism business.

Hispanic tourism in Nevada is a $1.5 billion-a-year business, according to Denis.

"Something like that would kill us economically," he added.

A member of a national legislative immigration task force, Denis said he has visited both the Canadian and Mexican borders and noted there is increased security and fewer illegal residents coming to the United States.

He favors an immigration reform law that would give illegal residents who have been paying taxes and not violating other laws a pathway to citizenship that would include paying penalties and learning English.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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