Legalizing Racial Profiling? Arizona Immigration Bill Draws Fire

Gov. Brewer soon will decide fate of bill that makes being undocumented a crime.

April 21, 2010, 3:52 PM

April 22, 2010 — -- An Arizona state bill that would give law enforcement greater authority over arresting illegal immigrants has caused national uproar and could set the stage for court battles over how far states can go when it comes to immigration policies.

The bill would it make it a crime for immigrants to have no alien registration document, and undocumented citizens would be charged with "trespassing" simply for being in Arizona. The bill allows police to question and arrest people without warrant if there is "reasonable suspicion" about their immigration status. It would become illegal for people to employ illegal immigrants or to transport them anywhere in the state, even if they are family members.

Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has until Saturday night to veto the bill, sign it or do nothing and let it automatically become law. Proponents of the bill say they are confident Brewer will sign it, but the governor has been facing intense pressure to do the opposite.

Thousands of people have written or called the governor's office, weighing in overwhelmingly against the bill. As of Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman said, the governor's office had tallied 1,356 people for the bill and 11,931 against it.

Outside the state Capitol in Phoenix, protestors have been standing day and night since Sunday, calling on the governor to veto the bill.

"It affects everyone not only in Arizona, but nationally. ... I don't think anything has been this extreme until this point," said Bridgette Gomez, a 24-year-old math tutor. "The evil is racial profiling, to think that you're going to always have to show identification. Because I'm tan, I must be illegal."

Critics of the bill charge that it essentially legalizes racial profiling, which will lead to an uptick in hate crimes.

"It is literally designed to make life so unbearable for undocumented immigrants that they leave the state," said Frank Sharry, founder and director of America's Voice, which pushes for comprehensive immigration reform. "And in doing so it puts a target on the back of every Latino-looking person in the state."

Others say it's also unconstitutional because it encroaches on federal government's power to enforce immigration policy. The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) and other groups are preparing to challenge the legislation if it becomes law this week.

"The Constitution is pretty clear about having one set of rules," said Thomas A. Saenz, general counsel and president of MALDEF. "Now, you have the state of Arizona coming along and creating an obstacle to federally mandated priorities."

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Russell Pearce, said he's merely trying to enforce law that's already on the books.

"Illegal is not a race. It's a crime and in Arizona. We're going to enforce the law ... without apologies," said Pearce, a former deputy in the Maricopa County Sherriff's Office, which is known for cracking down on illegal immigrants. "It's just that simple."

Pearce said he went through the bill line by line with the governor and is confident she will sign it.

Even if the bill were to become law, however, the state would have to solicit the partnership of Department of Homeland Security. Its secretary, Janet Napolitano, vetoed the same bill three times when she was governor of Arizona.

Pearce made no bones about the fact that the bill is designed to prevent illegal immigrants from coming to Arizona.

"Our cities and neighborhoods have turned into war zones," he said. "We have such silly restrictions. We know that what's coming across the border today are smugglers, gang members, drug dealers, bad people."

Controversial Arizona Immigration Bill Awaits Gov. Brewer's Decision

There are about 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States and about 460,000 in Arizona, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Border violence has risen so much in Arizona that even Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, called for National Guard troops to be deployed on the state's border with Mexico.

Last month, a rancher was killed in southeastern Arizona. Authorities believe he was shot by an illegal immigrant, possibly someone connected to a drug cartel. Some say his death is what triggered more support for the bill.

Even so, some say the bill is simply inhumane. Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the country, said Sunday the bill encourages people to turn on each other.

"The tragedy of the law is its totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder, and consume public resources," Mahony wrote on his blog. "I can't imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation."

If Gov. Brewer signs the bill, Arizona would be the first state to implement such a law.

California attempted to pass a similar measure in 1994 -- Proposition 187 -- that was designed to keep illegal immigrants from using health, education and other social services. Even though it passed, it was struck down by a federal court on the basis of constitutionality.

Similar legal challenges against Arizona are inevitable, Saenz said, and it likely would end up costing the state millions of dollars.

"Arizona is going to face very serious consequences if it enacts it," Saenz said, comparing it to the experience in California, where the legislation was a "tremendously wasteful diversion of resources."

"There was a palpable impact on international trade to California, in particular," Saenz said. "It became clear over time that Mexican companies began to take their commerce through Texas and other border states because of pervasive hostility."

But it's high time states step up to the plate and do something about illegal immigrants, Pearce said.

"I would think this is a great opportunity to codify states' inherent authority," he said. "We created the federal government. We're in charge. Constitutionally we have inherent authority. It's time to step up to the plate and start enforcing the law."

This is not the first time Arizona's state laws have come under fire. In 2005, the state made smuggling humans a state crime, and in 2007, it prohibited employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

Just on Wednesday, the state House voted for a provision that would require President Obama to show his birth certificate if he wants to be on the state's ballot in the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, protesters are hoping to build grassroots momentum to convince Gov. Brewer to veto the bill.

"You hear story after story of youth that don't find out until they're 16 that they are undocumented because their parents didn't tell them," said Alicia Contreras, 26, a student at Arizona State University. "Arizona is ground zero for these type of immigration laws, and as a youth -- high school, college students -- we need to come together."

Brewer's office said the governor is discussing the bill with her Cabinet and won't comment on it until she has made her final decision.

ABC News On Campus reporter Lindsey Reiser contributed to this report.

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