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Romney and Obama: Lost in the Arizona Desert

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The Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments on Arizona's anti-immigrant law SB 1070. I was inside the chamber as the justices indicated they were inclined to uphold at least part of the law, the "show me your papers" provision. It allows police to detain people they believe are in the country illegally while their immigration status is determined.

It's tragic that we have even gotten to this point. At the same time, compelling arguments have been made about how opponents of SB 1070 might benefit from galvanizing the support of the Latino community.  A political silver lining for some, perhaps, but that won't matter for the families who suddenly find themselves at the mercy of local law enforcement able to freely discriminate.

Earlier this year while campaigning in Arizona, Mitt Romney declared his support for the state's 'model' immigration law, and pledged to drop the Justice Department's challenge to SB 1070 should he become president.

Even worse, he told voters about his plan for addressing undocumented immigration, which amounts to finding ways to make life so difficult for the undocumented that they 'self deport.'

Imagine how that might play out.

Perhaps it will look something like the Underground Railroad of the Free State/Slave State days or a mass exodus of the oppressed out of the hands of their oppressors a la biblical Egypt.

To anti-immigration extremists, this scenario might seem like sound, constitutional public policy. To me, it sounds like an America where we might have to put the Statue of Liberty in storage or be called hypocrites.

Now that Romney is virtually assured the GOP nomination, he is desperately trying to shed his 'severely' anti-immigration skin that has baked in the Arizona desert while he pandered to the SB 1070 zealots. No doubt about it, Mitt must molt. Conditions have changed.

'Self deport' and praise for SB 1070, for example, have repelled potential Latino supporters in battleground states as well as farmers and businessmen. It was no surprise that in an attempt to back away from SB 1070, a Romney campaign spokesperson last week 'clarified' that the candidate, in fact, did not call SB 1070 a model immigration law, but was instead referring to Arizona's e-verify system.

That was news to the law's author, former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, who, like the rest of us, was sure Romney was referring to SB 1070. So was I, which may be the only time you'll hear me agreeing with anything said by Pearce.

President Obama's immigration record isn't exactly blemish-free either. Under his watch, the federal government's unjust Secure Communities deportation program has greatly expanded. Though perhaps not as toxic as SB 1070, Secure Communities often results in racial profiling and leads minority communities to distrust law enforcement.

Still, Obama is rightfully challenging unconstitutional immigration laws like Arizona's, and he steadfastly remains on the right side of important legislation like the DREAM Act. But in trying to get Congress to put immigration reform on the agenda, the president has fallen short. Challenging SB 1070 merely on the grounds that state law cannot displace federal law on immigration laws does not address the larger issues at stake.

The Arizona desert can be an unforgiving place. But it can also be one where an immigration policy that is fair and respects civil liberties can flourish. The heat is on for the candidates to make that happen.