A referendum launched Wednesday could put Arizona's tough new law targeting illegal immigration on hold until 2012 if organizers can gather the more than 76,000 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot.
Opponents of the law have until late July or early August to file the signatures — the same time the law is set to go into effect. If they get enough signatures, the law would be delayed until a vote.
But the deadline to put a question on the November ballot is July 1, said Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake, so it would likely be 2012 before the law went before voters.
"That would be a pretty big advantage" to opponents of the law, said Andrew Chavez, head of a Phoenix-based petition circulating firm and chairman of the One Arizona referendum campaign.
The law, which thrust Arizona into the national spotlight since Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed it last week, requires local and state law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally and makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.
At least three Arizona cities are considering lawsuits to block the law. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said the measure would be "economically devastating," and called on the city council to sue the state to stop it from taking effect.
The council rejected that idea Tuesday, yet the mayor told reporters he retained legal counsel to prepare a lawsuit to file on behalf of the city.
Tucson leaders are also considering their options to block the law, and Flagstaff City Councilman Rick Swanson said the city had a duty to protect its residents who might be targeted.
"We are going to be the laughingstock of the nation and it is not funny — it is horrible and racist," Swanson said, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
The statewide referendum requires filing 76,682 voter signatures by 90 days after the current legislative session adjourns, which could occur as early as Thursday.
The legislation's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Russell Pearce, said he has no doubt voters would approve the measure as a referendum, which would then be protected from repeal by the Legislature.
In Arizona, measures approved by voters can only be repealed at the ballot box.
"They'll never be able to change it, so it's not all bad," Pearce said.
Chavez, whose firm has worked on numerous Arizona ballot campaigns, said others are behind the campaign. He declined to identify the campaign's backers pending filing of campaign finance reports triggered by spending.
He said the campaign will start deploying paid petition circulators as soon as the session ends and there's no chance that lawmakers will amend the law.
Meanwhile, the fallout spread beyond state borders.
A Republican Texas lawmaker said she'll introduce a measure similar to the Arizona law next year.
Texas Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball said she will push for the law in the January legislative session, according to Wednesday's editions of the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.
And Republicans running for governor in Colorado and Minnesota expressed support for the crackdown. "I'd do something very similar" if elected," Former Rep. Scott McInnis, told KHOW-AM radio in Denver.
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