April 30, 2010
A fight is brewing over Arizona’s new law that turns all of the state’s Latinos, even legal immigrants and citizens, into criminal suspects. And this is not a local fight. The poison is spreading; there is talk in Texas of passing a version of the Arizona statute.
President Obama has called the law “misguided” and promised to keep an eye on it. But when racial separation finds a foothold in any of the 50 states, the president needs to do more than mildly criticize. He should act. Here’s a partial but urgent to-do list:
DEFEND CIVIL RIGHTS The Justice Department needs to challenge this law forcefully in court. The statute requires police officers to stop and question anyone who looks like an illegal immigrant. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law but says she doesn’t know what an illegal immigrant looks like, leaving that to others who think they do.
The Justice Department knows what kinds of abuse that invites. It is already investigating the sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, who raids Hispanic neighborhoods in and around Phoenix. His deputies demand people’s papers based on the shirts and boots they wear.
Federal law requires noncitizens to carry documents but does not empower police officers to stop anyone they choose and demand to see papers. Arizona’s attempt to get around that by defining the act of standing on its soil without papers as a criminal act is repellent.
STOP ARIZONA COLD Arizona’s scheme will rely on federal databases to determine immigration status. It will also need the cooperation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, in accepting detainees. ICE says its priorities are dangerous criminals and fugitives, not the peaceful workers and families who are overwhelmingly the targets of the new law. In that case, ICE will deny Arizona authorities data, cooperation and scarce resources.
TAKE BACK IMMIGRATION POLICY The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that states cannot make their own immigration laws. The Arizona debacle gives the Obama administration another chance to make it clear that the nation’s immigration policy cannot be left to a ragged patchwork of state and local laws.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama praised a federal court’s decision striking down a law in Hazleton, Pa., that made it illegal to hire or rent housing to undocumented immigrants. To start forcefully asserting the central federal role in immigration, the administration should rescind a once-secret 2002 memo from President George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, that declared that state and local police had “inherent authority” to make immigration arrests. It should have done that long ago. It should also weigh in against another reckless Arizona law, now before the Supreme Court, that revokes the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
The administration’s actions elsewhere have sent the wrong message. Janet Napolitano once vetoed extremist immigration-enforcement bills as Arizona’s governor, but as the homeland security secretary she defends the use of state and local police as “force multipliers.” Ms. Napolitano needs to end dangerous experiments like the 287(g) program and Secure Communities, which hand over vital federal duties to untrained, unsupervised local deputies, openly enabling racial-profiling and undermining community policing and public safety.
These steps are no substitute for immigration reform, the future of which seems pretty murky after Mr. Obama started gingerly backing away this week. But the federal government must react forcefully to the Arizona statute. Is our core belief still the welcome and assimilation of newcomers? Arizona has given one answer. It’s time for Mr. Obama to give the other.