With Arizona prepared to implement its harsh new anti-immigrant law on July 29, it was time for the Justice Department to join the battle to block the law from taking effect. It finally did so Tuesday, correctly arguing that immigration law is chiefly reserved to federal jurisdiction, and that the new Arizona statute would, in any case, hinder state and federal authorities from pursuing immigrant terrorists, drug dealers and other criminal aliens who pose the greatest risk to America.
The federal lawsuit did not address the civil rights issue of blatant racial profiling which inherently would flow from the Arizona law, but it well could have done so. The law makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant in the state, and it requires police officers to determine the immigration status of any person they stop for another offense if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person might be an illegal immigrant.
Racial profiling is one of the law's most offensive aspects. Even as adjusted by the Arizona Legislature, the profiling issue has remained the most criticized element of the law by the national groups that elected to cancel work and conventions in Arizona in the wake of the state's passage of the law earlier this year.
The federal lawsuit not only adds weight to the suits already filed by other opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other civil rights groups: It also will help quell the impulse among some other like-minded Legislatures (including Tennessee's) to mimic the Arizona law.
The Justice Department had to file the lawsuit. The federal government cannot allow individual states to begin making a patchwork system of immigration law across the nation. The United States must have a uniform immigration policy in order to deal as an authoritative sovereign entity on immigration issues with other nations.
Immigration law, as well, must respect core constitutional civil rights. The Arizona law is clearly flawed on that score.
In states like Arizona along the Mexican border, its logical to suspect that requirement for police to determine a person's immigration status would effectively guide police officers to focus application of the law on people who seem obviously Hispanic, either by skin color, language skills or accent. Arizona, after all, is one of the southwestern border states most concerned by a virtual river of illegal immigration over the border from or through Mexico into the United States.
Yet that would play egregiously on a deeply flawed stereotype, because language and skin color emphatically does not automatically signal illegal immigrant status in Arizona, any more than they would in New Mexico, Texas or California. Each of these states already has become a minority-majority state: white-majority Americans are now less than half the states' population, and Hispanics constitute from one-third (i.e., in Texas) to roughly one-half (as in New Mexico). With such numbers, many Hispanics live in multicultural American communities that have remained characterized chiefly by Hispanic culture for decades, if not generations.
Arizona and Nevada will also soon become minority-majority states, with Hispanics the bulk of their minority population after whites. And Maryland, Florida, Georgia, New York and Mississippi are close behind them in becoming states with minority-majorities.
With large, legal American-Hispanic populations, unleashing a law that requires police authorities to target Hispanics would be intolerable on any constitutional or civil rights grounds.
The Arizona law should serve, however, to prompt both parties in Washington to heed President Obama's sensible proposal last week to begin an overhaul of the nation's badly tattered immigration system.
It is patently obvious that national concern over immigration is ahead of Congress' perception. But most Americans want both an effective and a rational, humane approach to immigration. Many would accept a phased approach to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have made a secure home in the United States if Congress would also shut off the job magnet that has attracted illegal immigration. To do the latter, Congress would have to force businesses, large and small, to require verifiable, legal immigration status for new employees.
That, in turn, ultimately will require a verifiable, national identification standard for citizenship and background checks for any employee, new or existing. To accomplish that, Americans at last will have to accept some form of a national identification paper, whether it's a technologically advanced Social Security/identity card, federally prescribed national driver's license or a passport card. Without such clear-cut, verifiable identification standards, illegal immigration will not be contained.
The country, moreover, simply cannot have a rational debate on legal immigration quotas versus sustainable natural resources until we get the vastly larger picture of illegal immigration under control. That's an eminently worthwhile battle, but Arizona's racial-profiling measure is no place to start.