National Immigration Forum

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Justice Department Lawsuit a Reminder that Congress Must Act

July 07, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger



Yesterday, the Justice Department finally filed suit against the State of Arizona.  In doing so, the Obama Administration is taking action against a State that is trying to set its own immigration policy.  Immigration is a federal matter, and the Justice Department suit focuses on that issue.


Under the state's law, police who have "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the country illegally can ask the person to prove legal status.  Effectively, this will result in many people being turned over to the federal government who do not fit federal priorities.  As the Justice Department release states,


"S.B. 1070 will place significant burdens on federal agencies, diverting their resources away from high-priority targets, such as aliens implicated in terrorism, drug smuggling, and gang activity, and those with criminal records."


Reactions predictably divided not just along party lines, but on how politicians felt the lawsuit would play among their electorates. 


Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona released a statement saying that,


"As a direct result of failed and inconsistent federal enforcement, Arizona is under attack from violent Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling cartels."


Brewer has been making claims about the consequences of failed federal action on immigration, going so far as saying, without evidence, that undocumented immigrants were beheading Arizonans.  Her claims seem to be getting more shrill as there has been increasing press coverage about a decrease in crime in Arizona over the past several years, and the decrease in illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border.  (Her effort to portray Arizona as overrun with crime is creating other problems—it's not very appealing to potential tourists who are already hearing bad things about Arizona.


The Governor also says in her statement that she will "not stop fighting to protect the people of Arizona…."  If that was her intent in signing SB 1070, she might have listened to law enforcement in her state.  The police chiefs of the state's two largest cities support the Justice Department in its lawsuit.  Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, for example, says in a document filed with the lawsuit that he believes SB 1070 "will have a negative effect on … community policing efforts."


Arizona's two senators also attacked the Justice Department lawsuit, saying in a statement that the Arizona law was needed because,


"[t]he Obama Administration has not done everything it can do to protect the people of Arizona from the violence and crime illegal immigration brings to our state." 


They didn't explain what they meant by this, given that there has been a decline in Arizona's crime rates coinciding with an increase in the undocumented immigrant population in the state—as well as unprecedented enforcement resources on the border.


The statement also asks,


"…what are the people of Arizona left to do when the federal government fails in its responsibility?"


This and other comments I've seen that refer to "the federal government" seem to forget that the legislative branch is part of "the federal government."  A sole focus on border enforcement is not going to create the legal channels for immigrant workers and family members to meet current and future demands.  Nor will it deal realistically with the millions of undocumented immigrants who have been living and working in this country for many years.  Border enforcement—and immigration enforcement more broadly—is made much more difficult as long as the immigrants who have come to live and work here are treated the same as those who come to commit serious crimes.  Making the rules reasonable is the responsibility of Congress.  The people of Arizona each are represented by two Senators and one Member of the House.  These legislators need to take responsibility and pass comprehensive immigration reform, a sensible solution for our dysfunctional system that has been, and continues to be, supported by a majority of the public.


Having states make their own immigration rules to some extent enables Congress to avoid fulfilling its obligation to fix the broken immigration system.  The Justice Department lawsuit reasserts federal responsibility and, until the legislative branch of "the federal government" deals with the problem, we are all going to continue to suffer.


Photo: Department of Justice

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