Arizona’s once-feared immigration law, SB 1070, loses most of its power in settlement

Immigrants' rights supporters march against Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law outside federal court in Los Angeles in 2012.
(Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)

Arizona has announced an end to its practice of requiring police officers to demand the papers of people suspected of being in the country illegally — a move that pulls the last set of teeth from what was once the nation’s most fearsome immigration law.

The announcement on Thursday came as part of a settlement with the National Immigration Law Center and other immigrants’ rights groups that sued six years ago just after passage of the measure, referred to by its legislative shorthand, SB 1070.

The 2010 bill angered immigration activists, business leaders and the governments of more liberal cities, which announced boycotts of Arizona. A boycott from the Los Angeles City Council led Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce to threaten “to renegotiate your power agreements so that Los Angeles no longer receives any power from Arizona-based generation.”


The state of Arizona will also pay $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs.

Arizona Atty. Gen. Mark Brnovich issued an informal opinion as part of the settlement that instructs police officers to ignore the provision in the law that requires them to investigate a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is in the country illegally — an element of the law that immigrants’ rights groups warned would lead to racial profiling.

“Officers shall not prolong a stop, detention or arrest solely for the purpose of verifying immigration status,” Brnovich wrote. “Officers shall not contact, stop, detain or arrest an individual based on race, color, or national origin, except when it is part of a suspect description.”

If officers suspects that a person is in the country illegally, they may contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “unless doing so would prolong the stop or detention,” Brnovich wrote.

Furthermore, officers are no longer required to ask for papers, but now may do so at their own discretion, and Brnovich outlined multiple reasons to drop such an inquiry, such as a heavy call load, inadequate staffing, lack of an available backup or a response from ICE that they are unavailable to assist.

After the opinion was released, Brnovich issued a statement assuring Arizonans that elements of SB 1070 would remain valid, including that law enforcement officers are still allowed — but no longer required — to inquire about immigration status.

“We have succeeded by keeping the key provisions of SB 1070 in place,” Brnovich said. “Our goal while negotiating this settlement was to find a common-sense solution that protects Arizona taxpayers while helping our great state move forward.”


Immigration advocates championed the settlement as a major step for immigrant rights.

“For the very first time since May 2010, there will be clarity to every law enforcement officer in the state that the only way to follow SB 1070 is to make sure no one is detained on their immigration status alone,” said Karen Tumlin, legal director of the National Immigration Law Center.

Senate Bill 1070, formally titled the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, was signed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. It contained elements of previous, failed attempts in Arizona at curbing the rights of people in the country illegally, such as a 2004 bill that would have restricted their use of social services.

SB 1070 was an omnibus of Arizona anti-immigration measures, collecting a decade’s worth of fears of Mexican drug cartels, competition for jobs and the state’s rapidly expanding Latino population into one piece of legislation. It passed the Arizona House, 35-21, and the state Senate, 17-11.

The law contained four major elements aimed at lessening the number of immigrants in the state illegally through attrition. It compelled police to ask for papers and allowed officers to arrest a person without a warrant if the officer believed the person has committed an offense that makes them deportable.

The law also made it a crime to fail to carry registration papers and for people in the country illegally to solicit work.

Multiple parties attempted to block its implementation, including the U.S. Department of Justice. Just a day before the law was to take effect, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that held back its most aggressive elements while lawsuits against the bill played out. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision, and the case went to the Supreme Court.


In 2012, the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 ruling, blocked three provisions of the Arizona law, but upheld the provision that required officers to demand papers from individuals, a situation that even the conservative dissenters among the justices acknowledged could lead to improper detentions and arrests.

Despite the potential for problems, the Supreme Court ruled that the 9th Circuit had improperly blocked the provision “without some showing that enforcement of the provision in fact conflicts with federal immigration law.”

The court also warned of the potential constitutional problems with prolonging or extending a police stop, a clause which formed the crux of Brnovich’s opinion. Brnovich also wrote that officers may decline to investigate an individual’s immigration status if such an inquiry would hinder or obstruct an investigation.

“The question now is: How will local police forces respond? How will they train themselves going forward?” Tumlin said.

Arizona’s immigration law inspired five states to enact similar legislation — Georgia, Utah, Alabama, South Carolina and Indiana. Those states’ laws have all been significantly rolled back by courts, including a similar “show me your papers” provision in Alabama.

SB 1070 was born amid a different conversation on immigration, one that centered on strident deportation policies and massive workplace raids. After former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed several versions of state bills that targeted immigrants, supporters of SB 1070 found a more accepting environment with Brewer.


Along with the five states that passed similar bills, illegal immigration opponents, emboldened by Arizona’s stance, introduced “show me your papers” legislation in 18 other states. Today, the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border shows that interest in a tough approach toward immigration remains alive and well.

Conversely, SB 1070 also energized immigrants’ rights activists and groups. Gallup polling has consistently shown increasing numbers of people in the U.S. accepting immigration as a positive force. Measures such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shielded young people in the country illegally from deportation, have been spurred forward by legislation such as SB 1070.

The state of Arizona can take some claim for those actions, too. Napolitano, the former Arizona governor, advanced them as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano is now president of the University of California.

Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara


2:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with an additional comment from Atty. Gen. Mark Brnovich, who says key parts of SB 1070 remain in place.


2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background on SB 1070.

This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.