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Immigration Reform Advocates See Silver Lining in Arizona

Khalil Abdullah | 4/30/2010, 11:50 a.m.

Arizona's new anti-illegal immigration law came in for harsh criticism by congressional leaders who gathered on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. But some also felt that the public outcry against SB 1070, Arizona's "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act," could force the U.S. Senate to hasten action on federal immigration policy. The Democratic leadership in the Senate plans to release their own proposal today.

"This Saturday, you're going to see thousands of people in over 70 cities gather and demand that the Senate act," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Il), who championed a House bill on immigration, acknowledging the observation by his colleague, Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-NY, that SB 1070 had a silver lining.

Although SB 1070 law will not go into effect until August, critics have been quick in their condemnation, calling for court challenges and other efforts to rescind or strike provisions from the law that they deem unconstitutional.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, whose district shares a lengthy border with Mexico, said the law "must be overturned, legally, politically or [through] the economic consequences that are happening to Arizona already." Grijalva has endorsed selective boycotting of his state's convention facilities and called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to turn his attention to Arizona. "The precedent and the Pandora's box that's being opened in Arizona applies to the rest of the nation," Grijalva said.

One of the evils SB 1070 would let loose on the world, according its critics, is a provision empowering police to request identification documents of a detainee in order to prove that person's legal status if there is "reasonable suspicion" by the officer that he or she is in the United State illegally. As immigration enforcement is a function delegated to the federal government, not state and local authorities, Guiterrez said, "Police officers do not have the inherent right to act as immigration officers."

Another provision would allow an Arizona resident to sue the police or other Arizona officials if that person felt that a police officer, official, or state agency were not fully enforcing the state's anti-illegal immigration policy and laws. That provision has prompted concern that police and officials would zealously overreach in enforcement activities for fear of personal liability in such a lawsuit, not to mention the potential cost to Arizona taxpayers.

While agreeing that the frustration of Arizonans that gave rise to SB 1070 is understandable, the speakers at the morning event skewered the law for the ambiguities of its language. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) asked whether "the calloused hands of a farm worker" might be enough to qualify as "reasonable suspicion" that an individual is an undocumented laborer as but one example of how the day-to-day enforcement of the law would likely give way to a rise in racial profiling of Arizona's Latino citizens by police.

He also noted that the interpretation of "lawful contact" by police with an individual that must occur before the "reasonable suspicion" - the stipulation that prompts the demand for identification papers of some kind -- was itself unconstitutionally broad because it extends to virtually any passing encounter with the public.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) said the law is "a reckless immigration enforcement bill that casts the Constitution aside," terming it "a step backwards" that "would not make our borders more secure." Of Americans, she said, "We are better than this."

"There's no way, if I were Latino, I wouldn't feel targeted." said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY). She was one of several Congressional Black Caucus members who compared SB 1070 to the passbook laws that existed in apartheid South Africa and similar Jim Crow statutes in the United States.

"As a Brooklyn native, whose roots are firmly planted in my Jamaican heritage, and a representative of one of the largest populations of first and second generation of immigrants, I see firsthand the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform," Clarke said.

Immediate legislative reform may be in jeopardy, however, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has been under attack from Republican voters in his state for a number reasons, including his support of President Obama's health care reform legislation, has indicated his disinclination to prioritize immigration reform over other issues on the Senate agenda.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-NY), who did not refer to Graham by name in her remarks, nevertheless was clear he was the target of her outrage. "There'll be those in the United States Senate, like the senator from South Carolina [who] indicated that he will not participate in other legislation, such as climate controls, if immigration is on the table. I will say to him, 'So what? We will not be intimidated by you.' "

"We are reminded of the Dixiecrats who stood against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, and said that they would not be moved," Lee exhorted, "But the people of good will and Americans understood that we cannot tolerate a second-class citizenship."

Mike Honda (D-CA), chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, the moderator of the event, said there are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented Asians in the United States, and that the replication of SB 1070 in other states would result in a patchwork of state laws that would extend racial profiling by law enforcement to other ethnic groups as well.

Honda said he thought SB 1070 was "reactionary" and would be found unconstitutional, as was California's Proposition 187 over a decade ago. Prop 187 required legal documentation in order to enable Californians to utilize most of the state's public services.

Honda underscored each speaker's call for immediate comprehensive immigration reform by Congress. "As a Japanese American who spent part of his child in internment camps, I know all too well the effects of scapegoating, the effects of racial profiling, the effects of failure of political leadership," he said. "Enough, enough."

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