After becoming a nine-day wonder on the national political stage, the Arizona legislature has amended its new law on immigration enforcement. Byron York notes that the conditions for investigating the residency status have gotten less ambiguous and more reflective of the intent of the legislature:
In the past days, some critics of the new Arizona immigration law have said that it will lead to Arizona becoming a police state. Many of the criticisms — some including the words Nazi and fascist — have been based on a general objection to the law and to the enforcement of the country’s immigration laws. But some have been specifically focused on a few key phrases in the law. …
The first concerns the phrase “lawful contact,” which is contained in this controversial portion of the bill: “For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency…where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person…” Although the drafters of the law said that the intent of “lawful contact” was to specify situations in which police have stopped someone because he or she was suspected of violating some other law — like a traffic stop — critics said it would allow cops to pick anyone out of a crowd and “demand their papers.”
So now, in response to those critics, lawmakers have removed “lawful contact” from the bill and replaced it with “lawful stop, detention or arrest.” In an explanatory note, lawmakers added that the change “stipulates that a lawful stop, detention or arrest must be in the enforcement of any other law or ordinance of a county, city or town or this state.”
“It was the intent of the legislature for ‘lawful contact’ to mean arrests and stops, but people on the left mischaracterized it,” says Kris Kobach, the law professor and former Bush Justice Department official who helped draft the law. “So that term is now defined.”
I agree that this issues of this passage got exaggerated, but it points out some sloppiness on the part of legislators as they passed this into law. Did they somehow think that opponents would not parse the language carefully? After all, it wasn’t just people on the Left who objected to the vague notion of “lawful contact” in this passage. Plenty of people on the Right also expressed concern about the potential for police to assume expansive powers to stop and question people with no probable cause other than assumptions about immigration status. Even some of the police in Arizona objected to it.
The Arizona legislature could have saved everyone the trouble by defining the parameters from the beginning. Governor Jan Brewer more or less had the same criticism, signing the bill but issuing an executive order to clear up the ambiguity by establishing rules for “lawful contact” simultaneous to the bill signing. The change now makes plain the intent to have Arizona law enforcement check residency status while enforcing the other laws of the state, a common-sense approach that other states should also adopt — since the federal government stubbornly refuses to enforce their own existing laws.
The new clarifications are welcome indeed, and should defuse the controversy that threatened to distract the GOP from the larger issues of economic crisis and government encroachment. But just as with the surprises that we keep finding in the ObamaCare bill, the entire problem could have been avoided had the legislature paid more attention to the details before voting it into law.