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Immigration reform heats up again as elections and trials approach

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Ralph Freso/AP

(Read caption) Devin Fleenor of Phoenix handcuffs himself to the doors of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office on July 29, in protest of Arizona's SB1070 immigration reform law. Private citizens from across the country have collectively donated over $3.6 million to support the law's legal defense.

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Immigration reform has returned to center stage as the November elections and Arizona immigration law trials near. Monday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado hosted a meeting with governors from 6 Mexican states to discuss immigration reform.

But if Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's experience signals anything for other states and cities, it's this: Be prepared for long and costly legal battles.

The tough Arizona legislation, SB1070, spawned seven lawsuits, including one by the Justice Department that prompted Federal District Judge Susan Bolton to block key components of the law until the case goes to trial. Governor Brewer's legal team requested that a federal appeals court judge reverse the decision, but the request was denied. Judge Bolton dismissed another of the seven that had been filed by a police officer, citing precedent that public officials cannot sue to block laws they don't want to enforce.

The six remaining cases are scheduled for trial in November.

In the first month of litigation alone, the state ran up roughly $77,000 in legal bills by the Phoenix-based law firm handling the case.

How does a state afford huge legal bills when its budget problems are so big that it had to sell and then buy back its Capitol building?

Brewer's answer was to establish an independent fund to support the law's legal defense as the case moves to trial, having included a provision within the law allowing for independent counsel to be used instead of the state attorney general. That way, taxpayer money won't be used to defend the law.

As of July 30, some 35,660 donors, most of them private citizens, had contributed nearly $1.7 million to the Border Security and Immigration Legal Defense Fund through the fund's website and mail-in contributions, according to Brewer’s office. In the following five weeks, that more than doubled. By September 9th, 42,184 donors had contributed over $3.6 million, mostly through mail-in donations.

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If the full law is eventually instituted, the legal costs could be substantial. Then they probably would be passed onto Arizona’s taxpayers, since the state would likely have to allocate additional resources towards prosecuting the new law’s violators. The increased costs could mean cuts elsewhere.

Other states are watching. In the first six months of 2010, 46 states introduced nearly 1,400 immigration-related bills, and five of them – South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Michigan – have introduced bills similar to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

[Editor's note: The fund-raising totals were updated in response to new information from the governor's office.]

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With ruling, battle over Arizona immigration law enters new phase

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