Arizona Governor Signs Harsh Immigration Measure into Law

On April 23rd, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a highly-controversial measure making it a crime under state law for undocumented immigrants to be present in Arizona. As the New York Times reported, “proponents and critics alike said [this] was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations,” one that “would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.” (See Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration, by Randal C. Archibold, New York Times, 23.Apr.2010.)Critics have assailed the new law as an open invitation to racial profiling by law enforcement personnel. Cardinal Mahony, leader of the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, decried the measure last week, calling it “retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless,” and comparing the new law’s ID requirement to police-state tactics. (See Cardinal Mahony Criticizes Arizona Immigration Bill, by Theresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, 20.Apr.2010.) According to the LA Times, Cardinal Mahony specifically compared the new Arizona law to “‘German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques’ that compelled people to turn each other in.”

Doubtless, some will find the Cardinal’s remarks a bit intemperate, invoking the specters of Nazism and communism, but one is hard-pressed to disagree with his point: the measure seems expressly designed to create a climate of fear in Arizona – not just among its ostensible targets – illegal immigrants – but also in the broader community, among millions of Hispanics whose appearance, names, and accents may subject them to arrest and public humiliation, notwithstanding their U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residency. Under the new law, looking or sounding “different” – read: non-white, non-Anglo – can get you stopped by the police, and potentially arrested in Arizona.

Fear seems to be the order of the day in Arizona right now. In a prepared statement, Governor Brewer claimed it was necessary to sign the immigration bill because “[t]here is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of Arizona. We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels. We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings, and violence compromise our quality of life. We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north.” (See Statement by Governor Jan Brewer, 23.Apr.2010.)

Disturbing as the violence along the border has become in recent months, Governor Brewer said nothing to indicate precisely how the new law would put that threat to rest. Politics is never far from the immigration issue, and it’s difficult to ignore the political context that may have forced the governor’s hand: as the Los Angeles Times reports, Brewer is facing a difficult primary this August, and nearly every Republican in the state legislature supported the new immigration law. (See Arizona’s Immigration Law May Spur a Showdown, by Nicholas Riccardi, 23.Apr.2010.) Fear strikes again – in this case, fear of losing an election.

While obviously keen to appease anti-immigrant forces in her home state, Governor Brewer was nonetheless at pains to tell the outside world that she “will NOT tolerate racial discrimination or racial profiling in Arizona.” More to the point was the fear of political embarrassment that underpinned her zealous backpedaling in the direction of civil rights. “We must acknowledge the truth – people across America are watching Arizona, seeing how we implement this law, ready to jump on even the slightest misstep. Some of those people from outside our state have an interest in seeing us fail. They will wait for a single slip-up, one mistake, and then they will work day and night to create headlines and get the face time they so desperately covet.” (Statement of Governor Brewer, 23.Apr.2010.) Famous last words, perhaps.

Had Governor Brewer been that concerned about racial profiling, she simply would not have signed the bill; even if not designed to promote racial profiling, the bill cannot help but cause it on a massive scale. Her disclaimers ring hollow, and call to mind Captain Renault in the film Casablanca, professing himself to be “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” One suspects the governor is less likely to be shocked than embarrassed when racial profiling is found to be happening in Arizona.

Anti-immigrant legislation may make “good box office” in some quarters – but Washington is already casting a skeptical eye on Arizona’s foray into immigration law. Under the doctrine of Federal preemption, immigration law rightfully belongs to Congress, and no doubt this issue will be aired along with many others when the Arizona bill winds up in court. Meanwhile, President Obama has promised to “examine the civil rights and other implications” of the new measure, according to the LA Times(See “Showdown,” 23.Apr.2010.), and Justice Department officials are “reviewing the bill” while immigrant rights groups consider their options to block the measure in court. Stay tuned.

[Followers of this topic may also like to hear NPR Radio host Diane Rehm’s discussion, The Politics and Possibilities of Immigration Reform, 27.Apr.2010.]

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.