Thursday, April 29, 2010

That Arizona Immigration Law

Boy, you know that things have gotten crazy when Chris Matthews is is the voice of reason. I think he is right here on all counts. In particular, there's been a lot of nonsense said about the new Arizona law. That's the one that takes the (admittedly extraordinary) step of creating a state offense that mirrors a federal offense -- illegal immigration status -- and empowers state officials to take enforcement steps regarding this new offense (presumably leading to the illegal resident's being turned over to federal officials).

Matthews probably is thinking of the comment by the Roman Catholic Cardinal of LA that the new Arizona immigration law involves "Nazi and Communist" techniques. The ADL agrees that these Nazi comparisons are obnoxious and trivialize the atrocities of the Third Reich. Of course they are right about this, too.

I hate to say anything so boring, but it seems to me this is one of those cases where there are weighty arguments on both sides.

The part of the law that a lot of the screaming is about reads like this: "For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency…where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person…" That is, representatives of any law enforcement agency can ask people for their papers on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" alone, provided the contact between the agent and the person is otherwise lawful.

Proponents of the bill have pointed out that this does not empower the cops to stop people in order to ask for their documents. The typical case, they say, would be a routine traffic stop over a missing tail light.

The wording seems to me, though, to include any contact that is not illegal, including a conversation on the street, at least if it was initiated by the civilian, who may be seeking help or trying to report an accident or crime. I have read several cases of people who go to the police for help and end up being under suspicion themselves, sometimes with very nasty results. [Update: I've just noticed that, since I wrote this, the bill has been amended to eliminate the broad "lawful contact" language, replacing it with a requirement that the cop asking for papers must be stopping, detaining, or arresting the individual involved on other grounds than immigration status concerns. Presumably, this was intended to eliminate just the sort of overbreadth problem that I am talking about here.]

Again, proponents have pointed out that non-citizens are already required by federal law to carry papers proving their legal right to be here. However, unless America became a police state while I was asleep last night, citizens are not. True, in most states (not quite all) a drivers' license is adequate proof that you are legal, but you are currently not required to carry it when you are not driving. (I often don't.)

Under this law, Arizona citizens are liable to have to interrupt what they are doing and go with a police officer to a place where they can prove that they are not illegals. While it does not saddle them with a new obligation, it does expose them to a new liability to being interfered with and, quite possibly, harassed. This is a big change from the status quo and I don't blame them for being upset.

Then there is the complaint that this law is unconstitutional because federal law preempts state law, and the state of Arizona is violating a fundamental principle of federalism.

I'm not so sure of this one. After all, Arizona is trying to enforce federal law, not undermine it. This dubious measure was only enacted because, due to the feds' refusal or inability to enforce their own laws there are now almost 1/2 million illegals (so far) in Arizona. It seems like the preemption argument has to maintain that, not only does federal law trump state law, but federal incompetence and cowardice does so as well.
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