FRANKFORT -- The volatile illegal immigration issue has reached into the Kentucky legislature with a Republican-backed bill aimed at preventing sanctuary policies at the local level and requiring most public employees to use their "best efforts" to help enforce federal immigration laws.
A top lawmaker on Thursday touted the measure as a public-safety tool to combat Kentucky's drug woes, including a Mexican drug trafficking network reputed to operate in the state.
"These individuals are bringing pure death to this nation," Senate President Robert Stivers said.
The measure, introduced during the opening week of the legislative session, would prohibit public entities including city and county governments from adopting sanctuary policies. By designating the proposal as Senate Bill 1, the leaders of the Republican-dominated Senate signaled that the measure is a top priority.
If the bill clears the Senate, it would go to the House, which is also controlled by GOP lawmakers. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has noted that Kentucky has no sanctuary cities, but the bill's lead sponsor said the preemptive approach is needed.
"Do I think we're heading off some possible issues, yes," said Sen. Danny Carroll of Paducah.
The measure was endorsed Thursday by the state's new attorney general, Daniel Cameron.
Cameron, a Republican elected last year, said sanctuary policies can "discourage collaboration," hindering law enforcement investigations. The result, he said, can create "an obvious vulnerability that can be exploited by those who wish to break the law."
A civil liberties group has lambasted the bill, including provisions requiring most of the state's public employees to use their "best efforts" to support enforcement of federal immigration laws.
"The bill seeks to use our public agency employees as immigration agents, without any training," said Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
The bill would affect agencies getting at least 25% of funding from government, meaning it would extend to employees at places such as domestic violence and sexual assault centers, she said. It would also apply to public universities and colleges but not to public elementary and secondary schools.
Carroll insisted the bill does not signal an expectation that public employees should take proactive steps to enforce immigration laws.
"We would not require civilians to act in a law enforcement capacity in any way, and this bill does nothing to do that," Carroll said. "It simply stresses that there is an expectation that you cooperate with any law enforcement."
Miller said the bill is not needed and warned about its "dangerous" consequences if it becomes law. It would lead to racial profiling and the separation of families targeted for deportation, Miller said. The bill's supporters denounced the criticism as "fear-mongering."
"This is not a discriminatory piece of legislation," said state Rep. John Blanton. "This is a piece of legislation that protects our law enforcement to do their jobs and provide protection to our citizens in this commonwealth."
The bill would allow law enforcement agencies to adopt policies limiting when officers could ask about the nationality and immigration status of a crime victim or witness. Such rules could allow those questions only if the information is pertinent to an investigation or to help someone obtain a visa.
When asked about the bill earlier this week, Beshear said he's still reviewing it.
"We have no sanctuary cities, and as attorney general I ensured that and certified it virtually every year so that we would receive federal funds," the governor told reporters.
It was similar to the responses that Beshear gave during last year's gubernatorial election. Beshear, who preceded Cameron as attorney general, ousted Republican Matt Bevin in the election. Bevin tried to make immigration an issue in the campaign.