Arizona Lawsuit: Federal Stand for Reasonable Immigration Policies

07/07/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joshua Hoyt Director, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

The Obama Administration has taken a decisive stand against Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB 1070. The Justice Department has filed a federal complaint against the state, and is seeking to block enforcement of SB 1070 before it takes effect this month.

SB 1070 makes it a criminal offense not to carry immigration documents, and requires state and local police to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest. Contrary to claims that the law has been fixed to address civil rights concerns, SB 1070 in fact sets no limits on the suspected violations for which police can stop someone--including the new crime of not carrying documents--and check his or her status. SB 1070 in effect authorizes targeting of anyone suspected of lacking lawful status--which in Arizona will mean Latinos (or Native Americans) of whatever immigration status.

Laws like SB 1070 undermine federal law enforcement by setting up priorities that diverge from those of the federal government. SB 1070 authorizes state and local police to go after anyone they believe is undocumented, in hopes of driving undocumented immigrants from the state. In stark contrast, the federal government is carefully focusing its resources on those immigrants who pose serious threats to public safety. Our country cannot have a patchwork of policies that vary from place to place. Indeed, courts have consistently struck down local attempts to pass ordinances targeting undocumented immigrants due to the need for uniform federal policy.

This lawsuit by no means signals that the Obama Administration has been lax on border safety. The Border Patrol now has a record 20,000 agents, most of whom serve on the southern border. The Administration is also now sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. Deportations are also at record highs. Unauthorized crossings on the border have fallen sharply over the past three years, due not just to the economic downturn but also to tougher enforcement. U.S. communities on the southern border, which see thousands of legal crossings each day, are among the safest in the country.

SB 1070 is problematic for a wide range of other reasons. In addition to in effect authorizing racial and ethnic profiling, it threatens to undermine the trusting relations that many police departments in Arizona have built with immigrant communities. Indeed, some county sheriffs and police chiefs have opposed the law for this very reason. The law will also be expensive to implement, with additional costs of training, detention, and prosecution. And the state is already feeling the bite of lost revenues, as concerned organizations and individuals refuse to do business with Arizona while SB 1070 is on the books.

Together with Presidents Obama's speech on July 1, the Justice Department's suit against Arizona is an important signal that this administration is paying close attention to our broken immigration system. Most Americans want action on immigration. Indeed, the polls showing that most Americans support SB 1070 also indicate that they also support comprehensive reform that will enable undocumented immigrants to earn legal status. President Obama should move immigration reform forward so we can finally fix our broken system, and craft immigration policies that respect the contributions and rights of immigrants and honor our values of fairness and justice.