Groups on both sides of the immigration reform debate in Arkansas don’t find much to agree on, but they both see next year as a chance for a rematch. The possibility of Congress taking up immigration reform again and another ballot initiative campaign by an anti-illegal immigrant group have advocates of both sides approaching 2010 as another battleground year.

The announcement earlier this month that a coalition of lawmakers in Washington are pushing for another try at reforming the nation’s immigration system has mobilized activists in the state once more.

A group of religious leaders from around the state that includes state Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen has already begun campaigning for some type of reform, calling it a moral issue. Steve Copley, a Methodist minister and activist on immigration issues, says he’s hopeful that the push for reforms will come next year after Congress addresses overhauling the nation’s health care system. Copley said he’s hopeful that any legislation will include a path to citizenship for the some 12 million people who are in the country illegally. “The system’s broken and something needs to happen,” Copley said.

Key Republicans view the push as an opportunity for a do-over, with former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie saying in a recent Little Rock speech that it could help the GOP soften its image and possibly attract more Hispanic voters. “I think there’s an opportunity there for Republicans to get the tone right in this debate and not come across as anti-immigration, but pro-legal immigration,” Gillespie said earlier this month. “As a whole, I think our party was poorly positioned on the immigration debate.”

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee echoed those comments, noting that he had “paid dearly” during the Republican presidential campaign for his past support of legislation that would have made the children of illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state tuition rates. “Republicans have to be careful to distinguish between standing for principles of law and order and recognizing the obvious issue of the growing demographic influence of the Hispanic population,” Huckabee said. “I believe that most of the problem with illegal immigration is the fault of the government because the government never controlled our borders.”

Finding that balance in Arkansas may be difficult, however, judging by this year’s legislative session. A revived attempt to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition failed in the Senate despite a vigorous push by its sponsor. That push included a rare “committee of the whole” hearing before the full Senate and lobbying by heads of the state’s major colleges and universities. “The bottom line is this: They are in our state. They are not leaving,” Sen. Joyce Elliott said earlier this year. “We can choose to have them here as educated people, or we can choose to have them here as folks that we deny an education to. That’s our choice.”

The measure faced objections from lawmakers who said they were worried that it would violate federal law, and who also said they were afraid it would reward illegal immigration by offering the lower rates.

The same chamber had halted a similar proposal in 2005 by Elliott, who was then a House member calling for in-state tuition as well as scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants. That measure passed the House, but failed in the Senate despite removal of the scholarship provision. That failure, in part, has emboldened a group known as Secure Arkansas to try once more with its own proposal that would require state government agencies to verify that all those seeking benefits are legal U.S. residents. The group, which tried and failed to get a similar measure on the ballot last year, has gathered about 3,000 signatures in its effort to get the proposal on next fall’s ballot. The group must gather 77,468 signatures to place the proposal on the November 2010 general election ballot.

The measure is likely to face resistance again from Gov. Mike Beebe, who opposed the proposal last year because he said it would duplicate laws that are already on the books. Beebe’s office has said the governor was likely to again oppose the measure if it was similar to last year’s proposal.

Jeanne Burlsworth, the group’s chairwoman, said she thinks Secure Arkansas will be more successful this time because it started gathering signatures earlier and has a more organized campaign than it did last year. Burlsworth says she thinks the congressional talks on immigration reform will spur more interest in the restriction. “Arkansas has been a battleground state and I feel like the people are going to be more determined than they ever have been to see change,” Burlsworth said.

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