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What's at stake if Supreme Court rules for SB 1070?

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What's at stake if Supreme Court rules for SB 1070?

  • Supporters and protesters rally at the State Capitol in January.
    Devin McIntyre/Cronkite News ServiceSupporters and protesters rally at the State Capitol in January.

The enactment in April 2010 of Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, SB 1070, which targets undocumented immigrants and increases the authority of local police, was an ominous sign for the direction of the immigration debate in this country.

By signing into law the most restrictive anti-immigrant piece of state legislation the country has ever seen, Gov. Jan Brewer declared that Arizona would pursue its own immigration policy—“attrition through enforcement.”

This attrition policy, conjured up by hardline immigration restrictionists, aims to make life so harsh for undocumented immigrants and their families that they would “self-deport” to their home countries. Unsurprisingly, these policies in Arizona and other parts of the country have failed in that objective—people are either staying put and going further underground or are moving to a more welcoming county or state. But Arizona lawmakers have succeeded in creating a deeply inhospitable climate for all people of color, citizen or not, in the state.

More than just a misguided attempt by the state to assume responsibility for immigration policy, SB 1070 represents legally sanctioned racial intimidation.

By targeting certain groups of people living within the state, the Arizona law amounts to an ethnically divisive and deeply hostile social policy. It raises the specter of states treating people differently based solely on their appearance rather than on their actions. And it does so at a time when the face of our nation is changing dramatically, and ethnic diversity is becoming the norm—not just in isolated urban pockets but also throughout the country. By 2040 the country is projected to no longer have a single ethnic majority.

Groups of citizens and law enforcement personnel who understand that these measures serve only to sow division and mistrust in increasingly diverse communities challenged Arizona’s law, arguing that it would lead ineluctably to illegal racial profiling. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed suit to block the law, arguing that the nation must speak with one voice when it comes to immigration policy and the treatment of foreign nationals present in the United States.

Specifically, the Department of Justice called for the courts to enjoin four provisions of the Arizona law that unconstitutionally interfere with federal immigration policy: (1) The requirement that all residents of the state, citizens and immigrants alike, “show their papers” if a law enforcement agent who stops them has a “reasonable suspicion” to believe that they are undocumented; (2) The provision making it a state crime if a person cannot produce the proof of their immigration status; (3) The provision making it a state crime for a person to seek work or be employed without the required papers; and (4) The provision authorizing law enforcement to arrest an individual without a warrant if the officer believes they have committed any offense, in Arizona or anywhere else, that would make them deportable.

The federal district and appeals courts agreed with the Department of Justice that these provisions in Arizona’s new law were pre-empted by federal law and therefore were temporarily barred from going into effect. Arizona fought these court decisions and appealed them to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in the case on April 25, 2012.

Meanwhile, other states—including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah—followed Arizona’s lead and passed “copycat” legislation. Although federal courts have put most of those measures on hold temporarily, the district judge in the Alabama case allowed some extreme measures of that state’s law, HB 56, to initially go into effect, including a provision that went beyond Arizona’s SB 1070 and required schoolchildren to verify their immigration status at enrollment.

These anti-immigrant laws, even the ones currently blocked by the courts, have created a climate of fear and division within these states and have triggered a cascade of counterproductive real-world consequences. Some immigrant families decided to leave these states altogether and move to other, more welcoming states rather than accept this state-sponsored marginalization.

As a result, whole sectors of these states’ economies have suffered irreparable harm as immigrant workers either stayed home or left the state and were no longer available to harvest crops or perform other needed services. Companies and organizations that didn’t want their own members to face these draconian laws withdrew their businesses from these states, further extending and deepening the negative economic impact of these ill-conceived new immigration laws.

The significant social and economic harm that has already flowed from the enactment of these laws underscores the potentially monumental importance of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Arizona case. What is at stake is not merely a technical and esoteric legal argument. The ruling in this case could have profound implications, not only for the citizens and immigrants living in states with Arizona-style laws but also for the unity of the nation and the preservation of our core values.

If the Court gives its blessing to this coordinated “attrition through enforcement” strategy and allows SB 1070 and its progeny to be implemented, the nation will return to a time of deep division, likely cleaved once again along regional lines, with some states passing welcoming laws, and others passing restrictive ones. Yet the ultimate objective behind the strategy—preventing the “browning” of America—is nonetheless doomed to fail because it is on a collision course with seismic demographic shifts that are already underway.

This article was published by the Center for American Progress.

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