Border states have become frustrated beyond all patience with the federal government’s inability — and reluctance — to enforce immigration laws. In Arizona, voters passed a law authorizing local and state police to investigate potential immigration violations, a measure that had overwhelming and bipartisan support in the state. Instead of acknowledging the failure of several administrations to deal with immigration violations, including his own, Barack Obama lashed out at the state’s voters instead — and threatened to pursue civil-rights legal actions against them:
President Barack Obama criticized Arizona‘s tough immigration bill as irresponsible Friday and said his administration is examining whether it would violate civil rights.
Obama said the federal government must act responsibly to reform national immigration law — or “open the door to irresponsibility by others.”
“That includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe,” Obama said.
If signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the legislation would require police to question people about their immigration status if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the country illegally. Civil rights activists say such a law would lead to racial profiling and deter Hispanics from reporting crimes.
Obama instructed the Justice Department to examine the bill to see if it would violate civil rights.
In an ironic yet completely intentional milieu, Obama made his remarks in front of dozens of people who had just been naturalized after serving in the US armed forces. Presumably, these new citizens wound up in the Rose Garden because they followed the law in coming to the US. Instead of supporting compliance with the law, Obama attacked those who would secure the rights of others to immigrate legally by cracking down on those who don’t.
Interestingly, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer hasn’t signed the bill into law yet. She has until tomorrow to do so, but the delay seems to indicate that she’s not exactly enthusiastic about approving the measure. It’s one of the toughest bills in the nation, and certainly controversial. It allows police to question people about their immigration or citizenship status without the normal levels of probable cause, and not even all law-enforcement agencies agree on its reach:
The law would require the police “when practicable” to detain people they reasonably suspected were in the country without authorization. It would also allow the police to charge immigrants with a state crime for not carrying immigration documents. And it allows residents to sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced.
Members of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group of police leaders pressing for a federal overhaul of immigration law, said they worried that other states would copy Arizona, despite the likelihood that the law will be challenged in federal court.
“Just because it is in Arizona doesn’t mean it’s likely to remain there,” said George Gascón, the chief of the San Francisco Police Department and a former chief in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb. “We are very concerned about what could happen to public safety.”
The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police and several sheriffs have also come out against the bill, calling it burdensome and an intrusion into a federal matter.
Most police agencies or jails here already check the immigration status of people charged with a crime, in consultation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the new law would expand that power and allows the police to stop people on the suspicion of being in the country without documents.
Civil libertarians have already expressed objections to that kind of police intervention, and perhaps for good reason. The authority granted police seems to go beyond reasonable doubt, and how exactly police come to suspect that a person has violated immigration law is suspicious in itself.
However, Arizonans didn’t pass this law because Congress hasn’t enacted comprehensive immigration reform, as Obama insisted at the White House today. They passed this law because the federal government has abdicated its responsibilities to enforce existing immigration law. We don’t need a comprehensive immigration reform bill to resolve that — we just need the Department of Homeland Security and Barack Obama to do their jobs.
Update: Be sure to read Cassy Fiano’s take on the bill in the Green Room.
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