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The Arizona Immigration Law: Politics over Policy

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Never let bad policy get in the way of good politics. That's the cynical motto of the growing class of political copycats bent on replicating Arizona's controversial new immigration law in other states, including California.

Arizona's law, SB 1070, requires local police to act as federal immigration agents. Now police officers in Arizona can detain someone if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that she's an illegal immigrant.

Despite a broad, national backlash, the urge to score political points on the fringe seems irresistible. Last week, a California Assembly candidate promised to introduce an Arizona-style immigration law if he's elected. And in ten more states--Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Ohio, Missouri, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, and Maryland--politicians looking for a boost have called for laws that would mirror Arizona's law.

California cannot afford an Arizona-style immigration law. It is bad policy and the worst kind of politics.

Protecting public safety was supposedly a main justification for Arizona's law. As a career prosecutor for nearly two decades, I can tell you that transforming our local police officers into immigration agents will seriously harm our crime-fighting efforts. We have the nation's largest population of immigrants, with nearly 10 million California residents born abroad. If they don't report crimes, for fear of being interrogated about their immigration status, crimes will go unsolved and criminals will walk free among us. I've personally prosecuted hundreds of serious and violent crimes--robberies, murders, and rapes--where the case depended on an immigrant who was scared to come forward, but, because they did, we got a conviction.

2010-05-07-KDHimmigrationrally.jpg We need to encourage, not discourage, people to report violent crimes. In every community, there are predators who literally stalk immigrants precisely because they count on them to "keep quiet" if they're victimized. In domestic violence cases, abusers routinely threaten their spouses that they'll "turn them over to immigration" if they report the abuse. Other criminals rob their neighbors, scam people out of their homes, and sexually abuse children, counting on the fear of police to keep victims from reporting the crimes. Turning police officers into immigration agents will only push them further into the shadows and make them reliably easy victims for criminals.

But, of course, the predators don't stop there. The same people who victimize immigrants quickly turn their attention to other victims, as well -- citizens, bystanders, and others. Ultimately, then, it is our community that wins when people report crime, and ours that loses when they don't.

We also can't afford to divert scarce local law enforcement resources to enforcing federal immigration laws. Law enforcement budgets have been cut to the bone across California; many cities are laying-off police officers, firefighters, and prosecutors. We need to focus every resource on fighting violent crimes. We don't have extra officers--or local tax dollars--available to moonlight as immigration patrol, which is a federal responsibility.

There's no doubt that the federal government needs to pass meaningful immigration reform and that we have a serious illegal immigration problem in California, but "politics now, think later" measures like SB 1070 aren't the solution.

Kamala Harris is the District Attorney of San Francisco, and a candidate for Attorney General of the California. For more information, see kamalaharris.org.