The Immigration Mess

Posted July 18, 2010, at 6:11 p.m.

Immigration means different things to different people. For many, the biggest thing has long been the Statue of Liberty. It draws huge crowds of visitors, has appeared on the U.S. half-dollar and the five-dollar gold piece, and bears the often-quoted poem offering its “lamp beside the golden door” for “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It stirs the best in the hearts of Americans, most of whom themselves descended from immigrants.

For others, immigration stirs fears of competition for scarce jobs, overburdening of welfare and other government help, and in some cases ethnic nervousness or even hatred.

Still others include employers desperate for workers to fill low-paying jobs that Americans won’t take, and earlier immigrants yearning to reunite their families and eager to welcome further influx from their countries of origin.

Fear and hatred and political advantage seem to have won out temporarily in Arizona. Its new law, which takes effect July 29, criminalizes undocumented immigrants and legalizes the behavior of Joe Arpaio, who as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” has for years been stopping and questioning people he suspects, solely on their appearance, of being in this country illegally.

An obvious resolution of this situation would be a comprehensive immigration reform law that would not only curb illegal entrants but also would protect the interests of legal immigrants and provide a route by which the millions of undocumented immigrants could achieve legal status. Human Rights Watch has just issued a 24-page report titled “Tough, Fair, and Practical,” proposing an improved federal immigration law that would protect all workers against abuse and provide fair treatment for immigrants who come before the courts.

Congressional failure to act promptly has led the Obama administration to step into this clash of conflicting interests and move to block this controversial Arizona law.

Attorney General Eric Holder has sued Arizona to enforce the federal government’s constitutional power to set immigration policy and enforce it. The action naturally has stirred up a political hornet’s nest, but he had no alternative. The Arizona law makes it necessary for legal immigrants and U.S. citizens, especially those of Hispanic descent, to carry identification papers at all times or face arrest on “reasonable suspicion” of illegal presence in the country. One provision allows any legal resident of Arizona to collect monetary damages by showing that “any official or agency” has adopted or implemented a policy that “limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”

The federal lawsuit shows that, with such provisions, the Arizona law “disrupts federal enforcement priorities and resources that focus on aliens who pose a threat to national security or public safety.” In short, “The Constitution and the federal immigration laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country.”

Arizona should be forced to relax, and Congress should go forward with a fair and effective national immigration system.

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