Arizona Immigration Enforcement Bill Has National Impact
WASHINGTON - The Arizona legislature's passage of America's toughest immigration enforcement law has thrust the dormant issue of immigration reform back into the national spotlight, energizing groups on both sides.
Immigrant rights' advocates are showing a renewed urgency to push Congress and President Barack Obama to adopt a federal law that provides for a path toward citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
"This is a watershed moment, and we are calling on Congress and the White House to use it to pass comprehensive immigration reform," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-rights advocacy group.
Obama called Arizona's proposed immigration law "misguided" Friday and instructed the Justice Department to examine the bill to see whether it's legal and whether it violates people's civil rights.
"Recent efforts in Arizona ... threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe," he said.
The president agreed with immigrant rights' advocates that the federal government must act to avoid "irresponsibility by others."
Arizona's proposed law includes a provision that would make it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant by creating a charge of "willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document." It also would require law enforcement officers to make a reasonable attempt "when practicable" to determine the immigration status of a person if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally. It also would make it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or solicit work in Arizona.
Obama called moderate Republican senators from aboard Air Force One this week in an effort to win bipartisan support for a centrist reform bill that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to introduce. Schumer's plan calls for biometric Social Security cards to block hiring of illegal immigrants; increasing Border Patrol agents and surveillance technology at the borders; creating a temporary-worker program; and requiring illegal immigrants who want to become citizens to pay fines and back taxes, perform community service work, pass background checks and be proficient in English.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reportedly told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week that he wants to make immigration reform a priority before the November election.
But anti-immigration groups say the furor over the Arizona law will scare congressional lawmakers away from voting for reform in an election year that is already expected to be a tough one for the Democratic majority.
"This will send yet another signal to Congress of how dangerous an issue it is for them," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced immigration. "That's why (Arizona Sen.) John McCain is now a born-again immigration hawk, which is frankly hilarious. If anything, Arizona's action is going to make Congress members more leery of addressing this risky issue."
Both sides agree that Arizona's bill could spark a national trend as states look to fill the political void left by the inaction of the federal government.
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, said his group's members are already poised to take "clone bills," modeled on Arizona's SB1070, to state legislatures throughout the country.
"Arizona is ground zero, and it's just the start," Gheen said.
That's just what immigrant rights' groups fear.
"When states interject themselves into the federal government's purview, it creates this patchwork quilt of laws state by state when what we should be having is clear, rational laws guiding our immigration policies at the national level," Murguia said. "The result is chaos."
Such actions also could damage the friendship between Mexico and the United States by threatening the civil rights of Mexicans in the U.S., warned a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
"Mexico observes with concern the likelihood of negative effects that this measure, should it be approved, may have for the future development of friendship, commercial, touristic and cultural ties that have characterized the relationship between Mexico and Arizona for generations," said embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday.
States have followed Arizona's lead before, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the kind of reform that immigrant rights' groups are seeking. He cited state voters' passage in 2004 of Proposition 200, which requires residents to provide proof of citizenship before they can register to vote or apply for public benefits. More than half a dozen states took up similar measures after Arizona acted, Mehlman said.
"Arizona has been leading the way," Mehlman said. "But we still believe that Congress needs to get busy enforcing the immigration law on behalf of the American people. If the federal government was doing its job, then we wouldn't have states like Arizona adopting these laws."
At least one immigrant rights' advocate believes that other states will shy away from copying Arizona when they see just how huge the state's legal bills will be to fight challenges to the legislation if it becomes law.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he is poised to file suit to try to stop the proposed law from taking effect. He will assert that it violates the U.S. Constitution by interjecting the state into something over which only the federal government has jurisdiction. He also will argue that it violates equal-rights protections by sanctioning racial profiling - a charge that supporters of the bill deny.
"There is going to be a high cost to Arizona for their act of political symbolism," Saenz said. "Their court fight will have to be funded with taxpayers' money. I think many states may end up telling Arizona, 'You're on your own.' "