Those re-entering the U.S. without legal immigration status could be charged with a felony if they are arrested in Missouri on suspicion of committing another crime. A Senate committee is considering Rogersville Republican state Senator Mike Cunningham’s measure. His district covers a portion of southwest Missouri.

“I hope it’s never used but I’d rather be proactive and have something out there on the books that could be used. We’re not talking about discriminating against people. We’re talking about incarcerating criminals and I think if the feds aren’t going to do it, we have to step up and do it,” says Cunningham.

Sen. Mike Cunningham (R-Rogersville)

Opponents, including St. Louis-area immigration practitioner Ken Schmitt, say states can’t make up their own immigration offenses.

“The fact of the matter is the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the federal government has legislated extensively in the area of immigration enforcement and states are preempted,” says Schmitt.

He also points to the state’s potential increase in costs associated with the litigation process and imprisonment. Under the measure, individuals charged would face one to seven years in prison.

Schmitt says those already facing 10-20 years in prison aren’t going to be deterred by a few more years. Sen. Doug Libla (R-Poplar Bluff) says deterring someone from committing a crime is a big deal.

“When you’re a member of a gang and you see one of your buddies that may have started out resisting arrest. They become bolder. Next thing you know it goes to assault. Next thing it moves up to another level of a crime,” says Libla. “Next thing you know an officer may get killed. When I see a person not get a suspended imposition of sentence or they get out of jail really quick for a few of those, it emboldens people to do more crimes. When they see one of their pals missing for ten or twenty years, that is a deterrent.”

Republican Senator Brian Munzlinger of Williamstown in northeast Missouri says the U.S. has pathways for individuals to become legal immigrants and they should do so.

“We’ve got green cards where they can come in and work,” says Munzlinger.

Schmitt fired back by saying for many of those without legal status, obtaining a green card is not an option.

“It is not as simple as filing an application and dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s and getting your green card. That’s night and day wrong. Many of the folks are here exactly because their families were separated, they were fleeing extreme, horrible, unspeakable conditions. Systematic rape and murder and killing your children in front of your face,” says Schmitt. “Those folks aren’t going to consider whether there’s a seven year penalty to come and be illegally here. They’re going to get here because that’s the only way their children survive. Once they are here, there is no pathway for them. Not many of them. I take a little bit of issue at the concept that they could just get themselves legal if they wanted to.”

The committee has not voted on the bill.