LITTLE ROCK -- Donald Trump easily won Arkansas' Republican primary and the state's six electoral votes last year after vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and punish cities that don't cooperate with immigration authorities. A legislative panel's rejection of an effort to cut off funding to so-called sanctuary campuses shows resistance by lawmakers to fully embrace the president's immigration rhetoric, even in a solidly red state.
The House Education Committee's rejection of a bill to cut off funding to public colleges and universities that adopt sanctuary campus policies is a split from other Republican states. Neighboring Texas is advancing legislation banning sanctuary cities that would allow for criminal charges against city or county officials who intentionally don't comply.
It was a relief for advocates who say Arkansas has largely avoided enacting what they consider anti-immigrant measures, despite the state's shift to a majority Republican state over the past several years.
"To see this vote in such a resounding way, to keep Arkansas a state that has not ever passed an anti-immigrant piece of legislation we think is tremendously important and hopefully a good sign for what we hope to accomplish the rest of this session," said Mireya Reith, executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, an advocacy and resource group for immigrants.
The lawmaker behind the sanctuary campus measure acknowledged no schools so far had adopted policies preventing their officials from cooperating with immigration authorities. Days earlier, Arkansas State University had rebuffed a petition urging the school to label itself a sanctuary campus.
"We need to help our administrators, our presidents of these colleges and universities as well as our chancellors, so they can actually push back and say we will not be encouraged to break federal laws," Republican Rep. Brandt Smith said before the vote.
The bill's failure comes as advocates are concerned about the future of a program created under former President Barack Obama that allows young people brought into the country illegally as children to stay and obtain work permits.
Trump said during the presidential campaign that he would eliminate it but has since said his administration "will work something out" and hasn't taken any action against the program during his first days in office.
The bill faced resistance from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former federal Homeland Security official who oversaw border security efforts. Shortly before the panel's vote, Hutchinson told reporters that he was worried about the impact Smith's bill would have on some students.
"They're paying tuition, out-of-state tuition I believe, and they are getting their education and while they are doing that we don't want to create a climate of fear for them," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson, who has also expressed reservations about a separate effort to defund any sanctuary cities, joins a line of governors in the state who have grappled with legislative efforts targeting immigrants in the country illegally. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee blasted efforts to ban state services for immigrants in the country illegally. He also pushed unsuccessfully to grant college scholarships and in-state tuition rates to students who were in the country illegally.
Hutchinson's Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Mike Beebe, likewise criticized an unsuccessful attempt to cut off non-emergency services for immigrants without legal permission, a proposal he called "mean-spirited."
Hutchinson and the Legislature will likely face more tests on the issue. The lawmaker behind the anti-sanctuary cities bill said he wasn't deterred by the House panel's action. Immigrant groups are also concerned about a House-backed proposal requiring Arkansas courts to only use American laws.
In a state where Trump enjoyed major support in November, concerns about the practicality of these proposals could sink them as much as fears that they're anti-immigrant. Opponents of the courts proposal say it's addressing a problem that doesn't exist. It's similar to the criticism of the sanctuary campuses proposal, with lawmakers noting that they already have the authority to block funding during the regular budget process.
"Why should I pass a bill to grant myself a power I already have to fix a problem that does not exist?" Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa asked.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.Editorial on 02/14/2017