What Arizona’s immigration law really says


“As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged.” Those words were written by former President Clinton in a New York Times op-ed marking the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

While Clinton’s finger-wagging was directed at critics of the Obama administration, his caution against overblown rhetoric might also be heeded by the vast echo chamber bent on whipping up hysteria in response to a recently passed Arizona law designed to effectively address illegal immigration.

Arizonans have endured decades of federal neglect of immigration enforcement. Half of illegal border crossings now occur in Arizona, and our study found that state taxpayers spend more than $2 billion a year on education and healthcare for illegal immigrants and their children. The porous border is virtually a welcome mat for criminal organizations that run drugs and other contraband through the state. Kidnappings in Phoenix are at an all-time high, and the killing last month of rancher Robert Krentz -- police suspect by an illegal immigrant -- is only the latest graphic example of the impact that rampant illegal immigration has on ordinary Arizonans.

Faced with an ongoing crisis and little help from Washington, Arizona has been forced to respond to protect its residents and its financial resources. This month, the legislature passed and Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. Among other things, this law requires all law enforcement officers in Arizona to act on reasonable suspicion that an individual is in the country illegally.

The reaction from advocates for illegal immigrants to SB 1070 -- which, according to opinion polls, is supported by some 70% of Arizonans -- can only be described as incendiary and irresponsible, not to mention patently inaccurate. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony invoked images of Nazi Germany and Soviet totalitarianism. Reform Immigration for America, an umbrella coalition of pro-amnesty groups, warned ominously that “it’s racial profiling, and it encapsulates the hatred we are fighting.” ACORN’s Bertha Lewis declared, “If this bill passes, Arizona is declaring itself an apartheid state.”

SB 1070 is not a mandate for Arizona police to seek out illegal immigrants. It conforms fully with the Constitution’s 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Under the law, Arizona police are prohibited from racially profiling or stopping anybody merely because of appearance or ethnicity. They may inquire about immigration status only if there is justification for the stop under the Constitution -- such as investigating a possible crime -- and there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is in the U.S. illegally.

And what is reasonable suspicion? Reasonable suspicion might include the lack of any sort of valid U.S. identification documents that police officers routinely request from anyone who is lawfully stopped. The law expressly states that race, color or ethnicity does not constitute reasonable suspicion of illegal presence in the U.S. In reality, SB 1070 does nothing more than require police in Arizona to protect the citizenry and uphold responsibilities abrogated by the federal government.

A ruling by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals this year provides firm legal footing for Arizona’s law. In Estrada vs. Rhode Island, the court affirmed that the failure of an alien to possess alien registration documents represents probable cause for state or local police to arrest the person for a federal misdemeanor committed in the officer’s presence, or detain that person until the individual’s status can be verified.

Predictably, those who have consistently opposed all efforts to enforce U.S. immigration laws are resorting to a campaign of lies and distortions to fight implementation of the law.

SB 1070, plain and simple, will allow police to identify and detain people because of the laws they violate, not because they happen to meet a particular racial or ethnic profile. What it demands is that state law enforcement officers no longer turn a blind eye in situations in which they reasonably suspect that an individual they have encountered is violating U.S. immigration laws.

Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.