Arizona Gears Up for a Protracted Immigration Fight

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Ross D. Franklin / AP

Protesters on both sides of Arizona's new anti–illegal immigration law clash outside the state senate building in Phoenix

The protesters have largely dispersed from the lawn of the state capitol, and the camera crews are packing up and heading back East. But in Arizona, three days after Governor Jan Brewer signed the most aggressive anti–illegal immigration law in the country, the question remains: What comes next?

The first thing, say people on both sides of the issue, is to take a deep breath. The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, better known as SB1070, won't go into effect until 90 days after the current legislative session ends. "It will probably be in July or August," says Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix lawyer who is chair of the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza. "That's the first thing I am telling people. There's panic in the community."

Even after it does go into effect, it's unclear what immediate impact the law will have on the streets. "I believe this will be rarely applied," says Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, which supports the bill. "There's no requirement in 1070 that makes an officer check immigration status unless there's suspicion."

SB1070's broad instruction to police that when there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is an illegal immigrant, a "reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable" to check for documents has the state's top prosecutor fearing that it will be used excessively and will lead to ethnic profiling that would irrevocably damage relations between police and the Latino community. "Policing depends on casual contact," says Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. "This bill is going to stop that communication, [and] police without citizen observers are a tenth of the value."

There's also disagreement on the potential effect of the law's provisions that allow citizens to sue any agency or official who "limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws." Some fear that those provisions will bring a flood of court cases against cops and elected officials, but Livingston says the law has enough protections against frivolous lawsuits. Phil Gordon, the mayor of Phoenix who calls SB1070 a "hateful law," disagrees, saying that even seemingly unrelated city ordinances, like the one that prevents high-speed chases in residential neighborhoods, could lead to lawsuits if they even once impede the apprehension of a suspected illegal immigrant.

Gordon fears the law will have serious financial repercussions for Phoenix. First, there is the threat of boycott. He says several convention groups (whom he didn't want to name) have contacted him to say they were considering taking their business elsewhere. And he worries that the law may drive Hispanics — both legal and illegal — from his city: "If people leave, then every store, every business [will] suffer immensely."

The Phoenix mayor also believes, however, that the law's broad language could help the city mount a legal challenge: "We're looking at going to federal and state court and asking for an injunction," says Gordon, "saying that it's unconstitutional, because of the civil rights being violated and the vagueness of the statute."

Russell Pearce, the firebrand state senator who sponsored the original bill, likes to boast that he has won every legal challenge to his other legislation against illegal immigration. But this time could be different. President Obama, who took the unusual step of commenting on a state law when he called SB1070 "misguided" on Friday, ordered the Justice Department to look into the legislation. Some experts say that under Article 1 of the Constitution, only Congress has the right to set immigration law. There is a good reason for that, say opponents of the bill: Even if Arizona is successful in its crackdown, illegal traffic will move to other border states, shuffling the burden elsewhere without solving the national problem.

As for the border crime and cartel violence that has fueled much of Arizona's anxiety about immigration, there's little in SB1070 that would directly address it. "The tea baggers and company aren't the only ones who are frustrated. We need more border patrol," says Attorney General Goddard, who is running for governor as a Democrat. "But the serious crime is the human smugglers, the dope smugglers. [SB1070] doesn't do one thing to fight that."

Supporters say SB1070 helps secure the border, at least indirectly, by making it harder for illegal immigrants to live without scrutiny in Arizona. "When the federal government failed to act, Arizonans did," says J.D. Hayworth, a former Representative who is challenging Senator John McCain in the Republican primary. "[Arizonans] have been asking for years to have the federal government secure that border."

Largely because of that frustration, polls showed that a wide majority of Arizona's voters backed SB1070. And although Hispanics are thought to be about 30% of the general population, they are only 12% of the electorate, says Goddard. The two largest Latino districts — including the one represented by Representative Raul Grijalva, who made an unusual call for a boycott of his own state in protest at the legislation — have some of the lowest voter turnout of any congressional district in the nation.

The legislation looks certain to increase the divide between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in Arizona. At the protest in Phoenix on April 23, more than a thousand people, many of them Latino students, cheered as speakers likened the bill to South Africa's apartheid laws and the World War II Japanese internment act. "We will survive this," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator. "The people who passed this law will not."

That same day, at Briarwood Country Club in the retirement community of Sun City West, Hayworth and other Republican candidates gathered for a lasagna fundraiser held by the Arizona Federation of Republican Women. Praise for SB1070 was universal and enthusiastic. Just as Hayworth, a former sportscaster with a lustrous tan and sternly knitted brow, entered the room, one of his supporters stood by a table selling "Republican jewelry" and made a prediction of her own: "We will be the last ones standing."