PHOENIX — A referendum drive launched Wednesday could put Arizona's tough new law targeting illegal immigration on hold until 2012 if organizers wait until the last minute to turn in petition signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot.
Opponents of the law have until late July or early August to file the more than 76,000 signatures — the same time the law is set to go into effect. If they get enough signatures, the law would be delayed until a vote.
But the deadline to put a question on the November ballot is July 1, and a referendum filing later than that could delay a vote on the law until 2012, officials with the Secretary of State's Office said.
"That would be a pretty big advantage" to opponents of the law, said Andrew Chavez, head of a Phoenix-based petition circulating firm and chairman of the One Arizona referendum campaign.
The law, which thrust Arizona into the national spotlight since Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed it last week, requires local and state law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally and makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.
The strict new state law has led to renewed demands for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.
An emerging proposal by three Democratic U.S. senators calls for more federal enforcement agents and other border security tightening benchmarks before illegal immigrants could become legal U.S. residents.
Those goals "must be met before action can be taken to adjust the status of people already in the United States illegally," according to a copy of the draft legislation, obtained Wednesday by the Associated Press, that Sens. Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez are developing.
At least three Arizona cities are considering lawsuits to block the state law. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said the measure would be "economically devastating," and called on the City Council to sue the state to stop it from taking effect.
Tucson leaders are also considering their options to block the law, and Flagstaff City Councilman Rick Swanson said the city had a duty to protect its residents who might be targeted.
The statewide referendum requires filing 76,682 voter signatures within 90 days after the current legislative session adjourns, which could occur as early as Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said he could not imagine how the state could put a referendum on the November ballot if the filing wasn't made until late July.