WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a historic U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB 1070, a Senate Judiciary sub-committee heard testimony on the economic, social and civil rights implications of what has come to be known as the “papers please” law.
The law’s author, former Senator Russell Pearce, stood as the sole defender of the bill, which makes it a crime to be in the state without proper documentation. Calling it “reasonable” legislation, he described the day’s meeting as “mostly politics.”
“They don’t have a vote; the Supreme Court does,” he added. Pearce was recalled last year following a voter-led initiative. His replacement, a fellow Republican, takes a softer approach to immigration enforcement.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments centered around the question of whether the federal government has authority over individual states when it comes to formulating immigration law.
Senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were the only ones from the 11-member sub-committee in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing.
Schumer stressed that should the Arizona law be upheld by the high court, he would sponsor legislation preempting states from enforcing their own versions of immigration law.
“Schumer can run his bill… he may get it out of his committee but that’s where it will die,” said Pearce.
Five other states besides Arizona have similar bills on the books -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. All face challenges in federal courts. After Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law on April 23, 2010, a federal judge blocked four portions of the bill. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
During Wednesday’s hearing the justices are expected to rule on those four provisions: requiring law enforcement to inquire about an individual’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion”; penalties for not having legal documents to be in the state; making it a crime to seek employment as an undocumented immigrant; and the authorization of warrantless arrests of individuals.
“States should be barred from taking immigration enforcement matters into their own hands and imposing penalties as they see fit,” said Schumer during the hearing. “It is impractical to have a patchwork of different immigration laws across the country.
Those testifying Tuesday included former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., Senator Steve Gallardo, D-Ariz., as well as businessman Todd Landfried, the executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.
Pearce, however, was the focus of most of the questions from the senators.
Schumer focused on training manuals issued to law enforcement officials on how to enforce SB 1070. The manuals, he pointed out, lend themselves to racial profiling by requiring officers to consider the way someone dresses when determining whether they’re in the country illegally.
“I find it very demeaning to law enforcement that we would assume that,” Pearce replied.
Schumer responded by noting that the law itself was demeaning to law enforcement by including a provision -- currently in effect – that allows any citizen to sue an officer or agency “that adopts or implements a policy that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Several panelists echoed Schumer’s concern that the bill encourages racial profiling.
“This has become such an issue in Arizona,” said DeConcini, “that one of our sheriffs is under civil investigation based on profiling.” His comments were in reference to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which was recently found to be in violation of civil rights laws for improperly targeting Latinos during its enforcement of immigration laws.
Senator Gallardo, who introduced a bill to repeal SB 1070, said the law wasn’t an immigration bill but “a campaign of harassment and intimidation directed solely on the person's complexion.”
Emphasizing some of the social repercussions that have come about because of the bill, he said SB 1070 had resulted in a growing reluctance among victims of domestic violence and other crimes to contact the police for fear of being detained and deported. It also opened the door, he said, to “legitimating vigilante movements” and hate crimes.
“SB 1070 has done nothing to secure the border and resolve our immigration problem,” Gallardo stated. What it has done, he said, was sow the seeds of “racial tension and distrust.”
A report from Reuters seemed to support that view. According to the news agency, racial animosities between black and Hispanic inmates at a Phoenix jail spiked Monday when a Mexican prison gang “urged Hispanic inmates to refuse to be housed with black prisoners, and encouraged fights between them.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio put the maximum security unit at the 4th Avenue Jail under lockdown following a brawl there. Arpaio became notorious for his controversial sweeps targeting immigrants in Arizona.
Referring to the case of Juan Varela, a Mexican American who was killed by his next-door neighbor just a week after SB 1070 was signed into law, Gallardo pointed to the fact that the case was later determined to be a hate crime.
Senator Landfried focused on the economic impact of the law for Arizona. He said the flight of some 130,000 consumers – including immigrants and their family members -- in the wake of the bill’s passage resulted in a loss of $24.4 billion in gross domestic product to the state.
The focus of today’s hearing eventually turned toward the role the federal government could play in reforming the broken immigration system.
Senator Durbin put the spotlight on the DREAM Act, legislation he co-sponsored in Congress that would allow qualified undocumented students to legalize their status in the country.
“It’s a blanket amnesty,” said Pearce when asked for his opinion.
Durbin then held up pictures of several “Dream” students that could potentially be impacted by SB 1070, among them Dulce Matuz, an undocumented immigrant and an engineer recently selected as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a final decision on the law in June.
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