The Obama administration slapped Arizona with a lawsuit Tuesday, saying the state stepped on the federal government’s toes by passing a get-tough-on-immigration law.
That’s our job, the U.S. Justice Department says in its suit.
But you’re not doing it, says Arizona, and the point is well taken. The state’s approach to immigration reform is harsh and overreaching. But if Obama wants Arizona — and the dozen or so other states mulling similar laws (including Florida) — to stand down, he’s going to have to come up with something better. And soon.
The suit asks the court to block the Arizona law from taking effect July 29. Besides usurping federal authority, the government argues, SB 1070 invites racial profiling by instructing police to demand proof of residence from anyone they suspect is in the country illegally.
Neither argument is a slam dunk. In similar cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that states acted within the scope of their authority. And a court isn’t likely to act on the racial profiling claim before any profiling has occurred.
That’s all the more reason for a renewed sense of urgency on immigration reform, as signaled by Obama in a speech last week. The president called the Arizona law misguided and warned that a patchwork of 50 different laws would be disastrous. But he also called on Congress to overhaul the dysfunctional immigration system that encourages states to take matters into their own hands.
Americans agree overwhelmingly that the system is broken, but they disagree loudly on how to fix it. Arizona’s approach — called “attrition through enforcement” — is to make life miserable for illegal immigrants, so that those who aren’t deported will leave on their own.
Emboldened by support for SB 1070, some Arizona legislators are now talking about a bill that would deny birth certificates — and therefore automatic citizenship — to babies whose parents are here illegally.
Gov. Jan Brewer, meanwhile, defends the bill she signed into law by insisting that “we all know” most illegal immigrants are drug mules.
When attrition advocates say the federal government isn’t doing its job, they mean it isn’t doing enough to keep (or throw) illegal immigrants out. Before they’ll consider other reforms, they want the government to seal the border tight.
That’s a losing battle as long as there are incentives on this side — incentives that benefit both immigrants and the American businesses that employ them. For decades, an apt image of our southern border was a big “help wanted” sign fastened to a razor-wire fence. The mixed message: You’re not supposed to be here — but come if you can.
Nowhere is this more true than Arizona. Proximity to Mexico isn’t the only reason the state has so many illegal immigrants. Its economy was built on cheap, often illegal, labor — tourism, agriculture, construction. The flow of immigrants across the border dried up with the job market, but it will resume when the economy picks up. That’s why it’s important to fix the system now.
Can’t duck issue anymore
The framework for comprehensive reform, as outlined by Obama (and, before him, by President George W. Bush): Border security and workplace enforcement, to ensure workers are here legally. A flexible and realistic visa program, to match the number of visas with the actual needs of our business sector. And a path to legalization for the 11 million already here. That’s still a non-starter with some people, who think it rewards lawbreakers. But those immigrants broke the law with the tacit approval not just of the government, but its citizens — who employed them, directly and indirectly, and benefited from their labor.
For more than a decade, federal lawmakers have ducked immigration reform. Is it any wonder states have run out of patience? Arizona will have done us all a favor if its wrongheaded fix gets Congress off the dime at last.