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What’s at Stake in SB 1070’s Legal Duel?

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Across the nation, SB 1070 has arguably become one of the most notorious bill numbers in recent history (certainly among state legislation). Mere mention of this bill number has become synonymous with threats of racial profiling, counterproductive “attrition through enforcement” approaches, and criminalization of “driving while Latino” – a sad political commentary for a SW border state with strong historic, cultural and economic ties to neighboring Mexico.

Signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in April 2010, SB 1070 (aka the “show me your papers” law) would effectively force police to engage in racial profiling, criminalize unauthorized migrants for ‘trespassing’ into Arizona, and permit anyone to sue local agencies if they believe that the law isn’t being adequately enforced.  Of the various goals SB 1070’s architects sought to accomplish with passage of the bill, they can rest assured that this heinous law captured the national public’s eye and federal government’s ear.

As part of the overwhelming response sparked by SB 1070, concerned civil rights organizations, as well as the Department of Justice, responded with legal challenges to block the implementation of the law. Thus, in true ‘wild west’ fashion, the state of Arizona found itself in a courtroom desert duel, federal government and well-respected civil rights organizations, such as the ACLU and MALDEF among others, vs. the state government, wrestling over legislation that if fully implemented would set a chilling precedent. We breathed a sigh of (temporary?) relief this past week when a federal judge blocked implementation of some of the most controversial and atrocious parts of the law, yet permitted others to stand. 

Like many hot-button issues, the muddled mess of political opportunism and finger-pointing that followed SB 1070’s passage has further thwarted productive discussions about what kind of country we want to live in and what are sensible next steps to fix our broken immigration system. Motivated by fear and anger, it’s easy for blanket accusations to find traction, such as blaming all undocumented immigrants for the existence of crime and violence. It’s in this space that irrevocably misguided policies like SB 1070 find a foothold. 

But once SB 1070 proponents wade through the political hype, all it takes are the right questions for those same individuals to come to more reasonable conclusions. If you doubt this possibility, consider that of the 60% of U.S. citizens who told pollsters that they support SB 1070, four out of five of those same individuals also “support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.”

Former commissioners of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service, Doris Meissner and James Ziglar, write:

The most important fact driving the Arizona action is a question: Why are an estimated 11 million people in this country illegally? It is not because they preferred to come illegally, with the inherent dangers of exploitation, uncertainty and even physical danger for themselves and their families. The simple answer is that our immigration laws provide inadequate legal avenues to enter the United States for employment purposes at levels that our economy demands. Congress has refused to deal with this reality for decades.

A failure to address this reality has led to a record number of migrants dying in that state each year in their efforts to reach jobs and loved ones in the United States, with this past July threatening to prove perhaps the most deadly in recent years. 

Now, to address the fears and concerns of Arizona’s residents which the not-so-cleverly-veiled SB 1070 claims to resolve. As a piece put out by the Woodrow Wilson International Center Mexico Institute points out, “Too often, immigrants that enter the U.S. in search of economic opportunities are confused with the drug traffickers and organized groups that also illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border.” Even the governor found herself overcome by this sense of confusion.

To conflate undocumented immigrants as cohorts in the activities of organized crime is dangerous and ultimately a disservice to every resident of the state. It ignores academic studies showing a correlation between decreasing crime rates in cities where the immigrant population is growing. It’s quite simple. If you’re seeking to improve the livelihood of your family and willing to brave the dangerous trek through the desert of Arizona to do so, you’re probably also going to do all you can to stay below the radar. At least that was the experience of an individual I worked asphalt with in Arizona who left his home for work, but very little else, for fear of deportation.

What is truly at stake with SB 1070 is a questioning of our values and our ability to ask and answer critical, reasonable questions.

What do we want to historically define us, the people of the United States of America?  What kind of Arizona do Arizonans want to live in?

Are we comfortable with allowing assumed criminality based on factors tied to a racial identity to characterize the way we treat an entire segment of the population, at least until they can cough up the appropriate paperwork?

Do we really think that institutionalizing fear and distrust between police officers and an entire sector of the population will make our communities safer?

Thankfully, we’ll have precious more time to answer these questions. At present, Judge Bolton’s preliminary injunction put the brakes on the three most egregious portions of the law she found to present a “‘distinct, unusual and extraordinary’ burden on legal resident aliens.”

However, the word that SB 1070 doesn’t fix our broken immigration system and supplants racial profiling for measures that would lead to safer border communities and safer states has fallen on deaf ears.  From Rhode Island to Kansas, other states are attempting to pass copycat legislation. For this reason, we urge you to sign the ACLU’s petition to tell every governor throughout the country that “you won’t tolerate unconstitutional racial profiling in your state or anywhere in the United States.”

With you, we’ll continue to ask hard questions and push for reasonable discussions within Congress and the Obama Administration in hopes of realizing more sensible policies that respect civil and human rights. Now is the time for our federal government to create an immigration system that works – and in doing so, slam the door shut on seriously misguided state legislation.

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