Arizona's Tough New Law Against Illegal Immigrants

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

A Guatemalan illegal immigrant prepares to board a plane during his deportation process in Phoenix, Ariz.

The toughest anti-illegal-immigrant measure in a generation passed the Arizona legislature this week. If signed, as expected, by Republican governor Jan Brewer, the law will give local police sweeping new powers in regard to undocumented workers. Currently, immigration offenses are violations of federal, not state, law, and local police officers only can inquire about a person's immigration status if that person is suspected of another crime. Under SB1070, however, Arizona police will have the right to stop anyone on "reasonable suspicion" that they may be an illegal immigrant and can arrest them if they are not carrying a valid driver's license or identity papers.

Passions about illegal immigration run high in Arizona, a point of entry for thousands of undocumented workers going to the U.S. from Mexico, and tensions were heightened by the recent murder of a rancher in a remote border area where illegal crossings are rampant. With 6.6 million residents, Arizona's illegal-immigrant population is estimated to be half a million people.

Both proponents and opponents of the law are vociferous. "This criminalizes undocumented status and turns dishwashers, janitors, landscapers and our neighbors into criminals," says Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "The bill constitutes a complete disregard for the rights of nonwhites in Arizona. It effectively mandates racial profiling." But state senator Russell Pearce, a Republican, says his bill "will not change a thing for lawful citizens. It simply takes the handcuffs off law enforcement and allows them to do their job. Our legal citizens have a constitutional right to expect protection of federal law against noncitizens. When those laws are not enforced, our citizens are denied equal protection."

All 35 Republicans in the lower Arizona house voted for the bill, while 21 Democrats voted against it. The bill passed the state senate earlier. Law enforcement in the state is split over the legislation, with rank and file supporting the measure and the Association of Chiefs of Police in opposition, saying it could hinder investigations by making the immigrant community hesitant to speak with police.

Appalled at the bill's harsh sweep, immigrant advocates are promising court challenges. "This is the most far-reaching anti-immigration bill in memory and it turns the presumption of innocence on its head," says Alessandra Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. "It singles out the failure to carry ID as a reason to believe you are an undocumented alien. What this means is that citizens will need to carry papers with them at all times. It means people like my mother, who has brown skin and an accent, can be arrested and detained until it is confirmed that they are legally in the country."

"This is the most anti-immigrant legislation the U.S. has seen since the House bill of 2005 which set off huge demonstrations across the country," says Newman. "The sheer breadth of this bill is going to alter the national discussion." He says the bill does four things: criminalizes undocumented status, enlists local police in illegal-immigration enforcement, allows citizens to sue police departments if citizens think the police are not being sufficiently vigilant in enforcement and forbids any city from ignoring the state law and becoming a so-called sanctuary zone. "That's before you get to racial profiling," says Newman, "because anyone who looks Latino or has an accent can be swept up, arrested and detained while their immigration status is verified."

Can the law stand up to scrutiny? "There are some things that states can do and some that states can't do, but this law threads the needle perfectly," says Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law professor who helped write the legislation. He believes it will withstand constitutional challenge. "In the bill, Arizona only penalizes what is already a crime under federal law," says Kobach, a Yale Law School graduate and onetime counsel to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. "That constitutes concurrent enforcement in legal terms, which the courts have said is permissible." Says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington: "The rhetoric that this bill will create a police state is ridiculous. What this does is give police officers an extra tool in their tool kit."

"Enough is enough," says state senator Pearce, speaking about the increased violence along the Arizona border with Mexico. "One family has been burglarized 18 times and a number of officers have been killed and maimed in the line of duty dealing with illegal immigrants who are criminals. Our message is very clear," says Pearce. "Illegal aliens should find another state besides Arizona to visit."