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"Show Me Your Papers" - Federal versus State Immigration Laws

It’s only April, but the Supreme Court has already had a monumental year.  Today, April 24, 2012, the High Court will referee another major debate between the Obama administration and the states.  Arizona’s SB 1070 has spurred the age-old controversy testing the powers of state against federal government with its significant anti-immigration implications.

SB 1070 is dubbed by some as the “show me your papers” legislation. SB 1070 makes it a misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without the required documents, adding an extra burden on aliens who are already required by federal law to register with the U.S. government if they’re above the age of 14 and remain in the U.S. longer than 30 days.

The Obama administration challenged the constitutionality of SB 1070 soon after its enactment on April 23, 2010.  Almost two years later to the day, the High Court will deliberate over the constitutional challenges brought forth by the federal government against Arizona’s law.

Critics of the law argue that it’s unconstitutional. They argue that the law violates the Commerce Clause and gives states unlawful power over federal government.  They also challenge the law based on the likelihood that it will encourage racial profiling among other civil rights violations.  President Obama called the law “misguided”, and stated that it would “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”[1]

On the other hand, supporters of Arizona’s SB 1070 argue the state law is designed to support, not challenge, the federal government’s existing efforts to control illegal immigration.  Proponents say the law is designed to “pick up where the federal government has failed.”[2] Moreover, supporters of the law argue immigration enforcement should not exclusively fall within the powers of federal government, and should invite participation from local and state law enforcement agencies as well.

Tomorrow, the Court will hear oral arguments and a decision can be expected sometime in June.  Also around the same time this summer, the Supreme Court is planning to announce its decision on health care reform, which was deliberated last month.  If the Court decides not to strike down SB 1070, it will open the door to similar legislation in other states.  Already half a dozen states, namely Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, have adopted similar laws.  If the Court upholds Arizona’s law, the reverberation will be felt across the country and each and every one of us in the U.S. can get ready to hear “show me your papers.”

Needless to say, the constitutional implications if the High Court upholds Arizona’s SB 1070 are significant.  It is not disputed that the law is designed to help regulate immigration. And because immigration has always fallen exclusively within federal authority, it is difficult to believe that any state laws involving immigration will not actually interfere with or impede federal law.  If every state decides to restrict or modify federal laws, there is no end in sight.  Before we know it, we will be known not as the United States of America, but as a collection of Autonomous Nations of America.

It is also clear that this kind of state legislation will encourage discrimination, racial profiling, and foster an atmosphere of fear and distrust of local law enforcement.  Laws such as SB 1070 will not only harm the immigrant community, but all citizens will be negatively impacted by these laws.  For one, laws such as this will further restrict the already limited resources of the law enforcement agencies who will be burdened with an additional role of becoming immigration agents, causing a financial strain on our local government and negatively impacting the safety of our communities.  

Undoubtedly 2012 is shaping up to be a critical year packed with substantial decisions to be made, not only for our elected officials and the Justices deliberating behind closed doors, but also for the rest of us who will be hitting the polls in November.  If you are undecided on how to cast your vote, we can expect the next few months will offer tremendous opportunity to learn not only what core issues are at stake, but also how the candidates fall. The good news is, even if you’re undecided about who should next take the seat at the white house, we can all at least agree that Arizona’s misguided attempts at immigration reform are unconstitutional.  We can only hope that the Supreme Court Justices will come to this conclusion too.

This is not the time to sit on the sidelines and simply observe. It is time to talk to friends and family, communicate with our representatives and do our part to put an end to constitutional infringements such as SB 1070 and similar laws.  To save you some time in your efforts to get the word out, see below for a sample letter you can send to your legislatures and media outlets:[3]

Dear Editor,
Next Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the anti-immigrant Arizona law SB 1070.   This law promotes discrimination based on the way people look and speak and that is un-American.  The Arizona law, and a number of other copycat laws in states like Alabama and Georgia, encourages discrimination against all of people of color, including those who have been American citizens all of their lives.

We need the Supreme Court to protect our basic rights and strike down this discriminatory law.  State "show me your papers" laws like the one in Arizona are not the solution to our broken immigration system.  We need Congress and the President to take leadership on immigration; what we do not need is a confusing patchwork of fifty different state laws that promote discrimination.

After Alabama passed its law, farm workers left for other states and crops were ruined.  When Arizona gained a reputation for discrimination after passing its law, the state lost an estimated $145m in convention business.  When teachers in Alabama were forced to become immigration agents, students were afraid to attend school.  When cops are required to check immigration papers, they spend less time solving serious crimes.  When states sanction profiling, U.S. citizens and immigrants alike get stopped and harassed.  We must do better than SB 1070. The Supreme Court must strike it down.



[3] Courtesy of American Immigration Lawyer’s Association’s Legislative Action Center.


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