Arizona has made national headlines again.  It is not a moment of pride.  On Tuesday, the Arizona House of Representatives passed SB 1070, a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to fail to carry proper immigration documents and requires police to determine a person’s immigration status if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an unauthorized immigrant.  The bill passed along party lines, and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is expected to sign the bill.  If she does, it will usher in a new, shameful era of profiling and abuse. For the Latino community, most of whom have families with roots that go back generations and whose culture is an integral part of Arizona, it means that they will be required to carry papers proving that they belong. The suspicion, anger, and resentment will be palpable.

As a native of Arizona, it is deeply distressing to see politicians who are willing to exploit the immigration issue with slogans and tough-guy bravado that is little more than embarrassing political theater (no doubt the headlines about this bill will include reminders of other Arizona political blunders like its stand-off on whether to recognize Martin Luther King Day).  Statements by Republican House members who supported the bill reflect an understanding that this is about politics not policy.  “This bill is filled with problems, huge problems. But more importantly it will not stem the tide of illegal immigration,” stated Rep. Bill Konopnicki, who also added that he felt “obligated” to support the bill anyway.  Arizonans deserve more from their politicians.

There is little doubt that this political theater will turn out very badly for the state.  Forcing the neighborhood cop on the beat to take on the enforcement of Federal immigration laws has never gone well.  In 1994, the decision of the Chandler police department to take on those duties was a disaster.  A report on the infamous “Chandler raids” from then Republican Attorney General Grant Woods found that “[n]numerous American citizens and legal permanent residents were stopped…for no other apparent reason than their skin color or Mexican appearance or use of the Spanish language.” The City faced millions of dollars in lawsuits and it took years to rebuild the trust of its Latino community.  The decision of Sherriff Joe Arpaio to spend millions of local dollars on immigration enforcement has been even more disastrous.  Not only have emergency response times for other serious crimes dropped, but the Sherriff’s office has become embroiled in lawsuits, federal investigations, and allegations of abuse that have clearly drained resources and attention away from the business of fighting crime. 

This law will make things worse, not better. Opponents of the bill are expected to file lawsuits intended to stop the law from taking effect.  Right or wrong, win or lose that will cost time and money. History suggests that there is merit to these lawsuits. Other laws have been struck down or enjoined by courts, including a 2005 New Hampshire law that would have made unauthorized immigrants trespassers, a Hazleton, Pennsylvania ordinance requiring landlords to get proof of legal residency from tenants, and a similar ordinance in Farmers Branch, Texas.

Arizona has been ground zero for experimenting with anti-immigrant legislation.  The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Russell Pearce, who has been at the forefront of Arizona’s anti-immigrant efforts, including Proposition 200 which required proof of citizenship for voting, and Arizona’s Fair and Legal Employment Act, which made E-Verify mandatory.  Pearce has also introduced bills to require Presidential candidates to provide proof of citizenship, to charge unauthorized immigrants with trespassing, to make English the official language, and to provide proof of legal status to register a vehicle. Those proposals pale in comparison to the controversial nature of this new law. 

Immigration is and should remain a Federal issue.  The fact that the Federal government has failed at its responsibility to create and maintain a functional immigration system is reason to hold Congress and the White House accountable and demand that they fix the broken system.  But it is not a reason to further burden local police and communities with the task of doing their job.  Shifting the burden of enforcing immigration law to local police makes no more sense than requiring local police to enforce Federal Tax law, or bankruptcy law, or Securities law even if the failures of the Federal government in those areas have had profound consequences for local communities. 

Arizona doesn’t have a monopoly on bad ideas, but it does seem particularly good at getting noticed for them.  Until Congress and the Administration get serious about passing comprehensive immigration reform, state and local governments are going to be under continued pressure to “do something” about illegal immigration, and they are going to continue to propose and pass unreasonable and ineffective laws.  While these laws do not stand a chance of fixing the nation’s broken immigration status, they do have real negative consequences for immigrants, people who “look like” they might be immigrants, American families, businesses, and local economies.

Photo by Steve Rhodes.