04/25/2012

Supreme Court Reviews Ariz. Anti-Immigrant Law, but Outcome is Far Greater Than One State’s Issue

This week, the state that created the blueprint for vicious anti-immigrant laws is going to court.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that will decide the constitutionality of Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB 1070. The court's decision is far greater than a single state's issue.

That's because several other states have followed Arizona's bad example.

Lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina - as well as other states - have passed similar laws that turn police into immigration agents. These laws not only give police the authority to demand "papers" proving a person's immigration status, but they often include other harsh provisions that criminalize acts of kindness, such as providing a ride to an undocumented immigrant.

These laws aren't about upholding the nation's immigration laws but exploiting the anti-immigrant climate. They're about trampling the Constitution by seizing the federal government's authority to enforce immigration law. They're about lawmakers violating the civil liberties of immigrants and citizens alike to show how tough they are on the "illegals."

That's why the Southern Poverty Law Center has worked to defeat these laws. It's why we submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court stating our opposition to Arizona's law. It's also why we have filed lawsuits challenging similar laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The court will decide the constitutionality of four provisions of the Arizona law that are also included in other states' laws we are challenging. These provisions legally sanction racial discrimination and have propelled their states backwards in civil and human rights – creating a humanitarian crisis for citizens and noncitizens alike. They have devastated the states' economies at a time of deep budget cuts and while many of their residents are struggling to live paycheck-to-paycheck.

The "papers please" provision of the Arizona law requires police to verify the immigration status of those they are "reasonably suspicious" may not be in the country legally. The anti-immigrant laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina also contain similar language. The laws in each state have forced many immigrants - regardless of status - to flee the state out of fear. They have placed a target on the backs of anyone who appears "foreign."

One criminal court judge and former police officer even noted in The Washington Post the difficulty this type of law places on law enforcement. Judge Arthur Hunter Jr., explains that these laws are unenforceable because they are vague and give too much discretion to police officers on the street.

Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina all rely heavily upon agriculture and migrant farm labor. In leaving their respective states, immigrants took with them the much needed labor to tend and harvest crops. Just last week Georgia began offering state prison inmates as a substitute for the lost farm labor, even though this approach failed the state's farming community last year. Crops were left rotting in fields in both Alabama and Georgia as farmers struggled to save their farms and feed their families. A sagging agriculture industry has only worsened the financial outlook for these states.

Similarly, the "trespass" provision of the Arizona law makes it a crime for undocumented people to even be present in the state. Both Alabama and South Carolina have included this provision in their anti-immigrant laws. The result of this provision has been to criminalize people based on appearance rather than criminalize an action.

For example, after Alabama's anti-immigrant law, HB 56, went into effect, the SPLC and the other groups representing plaintiffs in HICA v. Bentley, the lawsuit challenging HB 56, started a telephone hotline to field calls about the law. In the first weekend, we received close to 1,000 calls. We have now received over 5,600 calls through the hotline, and we've received many other complaints through other means.

The breadth of the problems — created directly and indirectly by Alabama's law — is breathtaking. These calls and the desperation in the callers' voices demonstrate that racial profiling takes many forms. It is perpetrated by law enforcement, school officials, government officials and ordinary people emboldened by the anti-immigrant messages the law sends.

Alabama's law - known as the harshest law in the country - also includes Arizona's "soliciting work" provision which makes it a state crime for someone without status to solicit work even though such an action is not a federal crime. This provision subjects people - all Alabamians – including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents – to unlawful search and seizure and interferes with the federal government's authority over immigration matters.

The "warrantless arrest" provision of the Arizona law, which will be reviewed by the Supreme court, is not included in the Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina anti-immigrant laws. This provision allows police to arrest someone for a civil immigration violation if they don't have a warrant from a court. Even federal immigration officers are not allowed to make such an arrest.

Though these three Southern states don't include this provision, they each have other unconstitutional provisions. For example, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina unconstitutionally criminalize acts of kindness such as harboring and transporting undocumented immigrants. Alabama's law also denies access to K-12 education and postsecondary education and limits the ability to contract for goods and services, among other illegal provisions. These provisions are not before the Supreme Court.

Alabama legislators are reviewing the state's anti-immigrant law, but they appear determined to keep pushing Alabama in the wrong direction. The legislation they have introduced to "tweak" the state's anti-immigrant law does not come close to adequately addressing the problems plaguing the state or ease the suffering of so many of the state's residents. While the Arizona decision won't resolve all immigration issues, it will likely have a significant impact on SPLC cases challenging the laws in other states.

The Arizona decision is much bigger than one state's issue. It is about how we see our nation and protecting the fundamental values upon which this country was founded. The Supreme Court will shape the future of this fight, but as a nation, we must be honest about the anti-immigrant sentiment behind these state laws, if we hope to achieve real immigration reform for the nation. To ensure the rights of all U.S. citizens and residents, we must have comprehensive immigration reform and it must come from the federal government if we truly want it to succeed.