Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

US: Court Blocks Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Law

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jul 28 2010 (IPS) - In a legal victory for the administration of President Barack Obama, a federal court Wednesday temporarily blocked the implementation of key provisions of a controversial Arizona immigration law that was to take effect Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton ruled that state authorities could not enforce sections of the law – which has been vigorously denounced by Mexico and other Latin American countries – that required immigrants to carry their immigration documents with them at all times.

She also blocked a provision that would require police officers to make a “reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop if they suspect the subject is “unlawfully present” in the U.S. If the person cannot provide appropriate documentation, the officers are required to arrest them.

“There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens,” the judge wrote in a decisions released by the court in Phoenix. “By enforcing this statute, Arizona would impose a ‘distinct, unusual and extraordinary’ burden on legal resident aliens that only the federal government has the authority to impose.”

“Preserving the status quo through a preliminary injunction is less harmful than allowing state laws that are likely pre-empted by federal law to be enforced,” she went on.

A preliminary injunction is a temporary measure taken by courts to prevent certain actions from taking place pending a full adjudication of issues raised by a lawsuit, but her decision suggested strongly that Obama’s Justice Department, which joined plaintiffs opposed to the law earlier this month, will prevail on the most controversial provisions.

At the same time, Brewer, who was appointed to the court by former President Bill Clinton, said some of the law’s other provisions will be permitted to take effect Thursday.

Among these are sections that make it illegal for a person to impede traffic in order to pick up day labourers and that forbids local police agencies from adopting policies that restrict the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

“Today’s ruling guts the unconstitutional immigration scheme that Arizona wanted to establish,” said Nina Perales, who headed the legal team of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), one of half a dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Justice Department, that challenged the law.

“The judge’s decision further shows that SB 1070 [the Arizona law] is an unconstitutional attempt by the state to take over the federal immigration system within Arizona’s borders. States around the nation should take heed that any similar efforts will not succeed,” she added.

But Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, said she intended to appeal the ruling. “It’s a temporary bump in the road,” she said of the injunction.

“We will move forward, and I’m sure that, after consultation with our counsel, we will appeal,” she told Associated Press while travelling out of state. “The bottom line is we’ve known all along that it is the responsibility of the feds [federal government] and they haven’t done their job so we were going to help them do that.”

The Arizona law, which was enacted in April, has become a lightning rod for the long-standing debate over U.S. immigration reform, border security, and the fate of the approximately 11 million people believed to be living illegally in the country.

While Obama insisted during his presidential campaign that comprehensive immigration reform would be one of his top priorities, the combination of the economic crisis that broke out just before his election, and the anti-immigrant backlash as manifested by the right-wing populist “Tea Party” movement has dashed all hope that a bi-partisan package – one that would enjoy support in both parties – could pass Congress.

Increased media attention here on the power and violence of the Mexican-based drug cartels over the past year has also darkened prospects for reform.

Indeed, the fact that Obama’s Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has felt compelled to endorse the most draconian provisions of his state’s new law in order to fend off a right-wing challenge in the ongoing Republican primary election for his Senate seat, has underlined how far to the right the immigration debate has shifted since Obama’s election. Under President George W. Bush, McCain was one of the most outspoken Republican voices in favour of reform, including amnesty provisions for undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for many years.

Despite data indicating a marked decline in illegal immigration, primarily due to the impact of the 2008-9 recession, the general perception, especially in Arizona, is that the U.S. has lost control of its borders. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 70 percent of likely Arizona voters support the law, while only 23 percent oppose it.

Nationwide, several polls taken this month found majorities of around 55 percent that favour the law, while around 35 percent oppose it. Indeed, “copycat” bills have been prepared in almost two dozen states, and Republican candidates for governor in several southern and Rocky Mountain states have campaigned on the promise of pushing similar bills if they win in November.

This has posed a tough political choice for Obama and the Democrats.

On the one hand, they feel obliged to respond to public opinion, especially in the run-up to the November mid-term elections. On the other, they see long-term political gain in retaining and cultivating the loyalty of the Hispanics who not only are strong supporters of reform that would legalise the status of undocumented immigrants, but who are also the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

Obama has tried to steer a middle path. In the wake of the Arizona law’s enactment in April, he announced just a few weeks later that he was deploying 1,200 National Guard troops to help patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. The administration has also stepped up deportations.

At the same time, he reiterated his support for the kind of comprehensive immigration reform favoured by most Hispanic groups, criticised the Arizona law as “ill-conceived”, and later authorised the Justice Department to join the lawsuit to prevent its implementation.

Given the prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment, the latter step was hailed as courageous by Hispanic and civil-rights groups.

“This is a major step that will help protect the residents of Arizona against racial profiling and discrimination, and the Obama administration deserves praise for its principled decision to challenge this law despite pressure to stay silent,” said Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director.

Arizona has itself suffered a significant backlash against the new law. More than 30 state and local jurisdictions across the nation enacted resolutions condemning Arizona’s law, joined a national boycott of Arizona, or instituted bans on travel to the state by their employees.

Led by Mexico, seven other Latin American countries – Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru – filed legal briefs in support of the Justice Department and the other plaintiffs in the case.

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