Radical law demands leadership
On Friday, April 23, all eyes were on Arizona, awaiting the moment when Gov. Jan Brewer would act on the nation’s most punitive anti-immigrant legislation in decades. Though she is running for re-election, and pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment has become a widespread political tactic in her party, we allowed ourselves a sliver of hope. After all, Arizona has seen its share of similar laws that have not solved the immigration problem. At a time when our state is facing one of its worst budget crises, this law will cost its taxpayers millions to implement, but not before the millions we will pay in legal challenges on the law’s constitutionality. With the stroke of her pen, the governor once again showed voters across the nation that cheap political points trump sound public policy.
I agree with the governor’s statement that “decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.” Sadly, we do not have to look very far for those who have been party to that inaction. Arizona’s two U.S. senators have recently been absent in exercising leadership to fix the broken immigration system, even though both are on the record stating that immigration reform is the real solution, and have worked on it in the past. This is puzzling at best for Arizona – ground zero for the immigration debate. Our Congressional delegation should be leading the charge, engage in a constructive debate, and deliver solutions. But so far, our senators have taken the politically expedient route of proposing more border security measures, even though we’ve done plenty of that to no avail. Instead they should propose the multilayered approach they supported in the past to fix the underlying legal immigration system.
The federal government shares responsibility for the abuses and chaotic patchwork of laws that have emerged around the country due to their inaction; we must absolutely hold them accountable. But the answer to abdication of responsibility by some does not give one a pass to act irresponsibly. Though we appreciate Gov. Brewer’s admonition that racial profiling will not be tolerated, she knows the facts defy her well-scripted words. Arizona has already gained notoriety for the civil rights abuses committed by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And now the governor has opened the door for similar practices to be imposed on the rest of the state.
The new law calls for the state’s law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of a person if they have “reasonable suspicion” the person is unlawfully in the country. But the law, which has rightfully alarmed civil rights organizations across the nation, including the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the ADL and NCLR, contains no definition of what constitutes reasonable suspicion. In a state where nearly one third of the population is Latino – the majority of whom are U.S. citizens and legal immigrants – and where the majority of the undocumented population is also Latino, the result is, regardless of their immigration status, Latinos will now be regarded as suspect in their own communities. Sure, the law says that in the course of implementation, those enforcing it “may not solely consider race, color or national origin.”
Let me be clear: I do not believe Sheriff Arpaio is representative of the men and women who serve to uphold public safety in our state. In fact, law enforcement is split on this legislation. Many believe it can drive a wedge between them and the communities they seek to protect, and leave them exposed to lawsuits. These lawsuits can come from the misapplication or abuse of the undefined “reasonable suspicion” clause.
Lawsuits can also come from any Arizona resident who feels a town, city, county or the state is not enforcing immigration laws, subjecting the agency in question to penalties of $1,000 to $5,000 per day. It’s a pretty untenable situation for law enforcement and a clear lose-lose situation for the taxpayers of the state, who will be footing the bill for these lawsuits.
We knew that Friday what Gov. Brewer’s decision would be. Fortunately for us, that day was a renewed call to action. Americans deserve better than false solutions that prey on our legitimate frustrations and erode our common decency. In Arizona, we will fight to overturn this unjust law, joined by many throughout the nation, to demand that the White House and Congress, once and for all, deliver the real solution: comprehensive immigration reform.
Daniel R. Ortega Jr. is an Arizona attorney and board chair of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.