A coalition of civil rights groups filed their own challenge Monday to Arizona’s new law aimed at illegal immigrants, charging it was adopted “with the purpose and intent to discriminate against racial and national origin minorities.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, contends the law, set to take effect July 29, “impermissibly and invidiously” targets individuals because of their origin, including Latinos residing in or traveling through Arizona, subjecting them to stop, detentions and questioning.
Other claims include that the law requires that police officer conduct unreasonable searches and violates the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. And lawyers for the various groups also argue that the whole statute amounts to an impermissible effort by the state to enforce federal immigration laws.
The lawsuit is likely to be consolidated with various other claims already filed in federal court seeking to invalidate the law. That includes another broad-based challenge by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders as well as legal action filed by police officers from Tucson and Phoenix, as well as threatened lawsuits by several cities including Tucson and San Luis.
Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrant Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the hope is that a federal judge will block the law from taking effect. But he said some of the challenges — particularly those which claim the legislation will lead to racial profiling — may actually require producing someone who actually has been the victim of the new law.
The legislation requires police, when practicable, to check the legal status of those they already have stopped, detained or arrested if there is reasonable suspicion the person is in the country illegally.
The final version of the legislation specifically precludes police from using race, ethnicity or national origin as a factor in determining who to question. And Gov. Jan Brewer, who has championed the measure, said racial profiling already is against the law.
But Guttentag said challengers can sustain the claim that, despite those factors, the law inevitably will lead to discrimination.
“In fact, racial profiling is widespread,” he said, despite the existing bans against it. And he said “a law like this … will necessarily cause racial discrimination and racial profiling.
“There are not objective criteria by which a person’s immigration status can be determined by a police officer looking at someone,” Guttentag said.
Nina Perales, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she believes challengers can show not only that the law will cause discrimination but that discrimination is part of the intent. The key, she said, is Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who crafted the measure.
“When he says that he’s uncomfortable with the demographic changes in Arizona, that’s a very clear signal that he’s uncomfortable with Latinos in his state, or in his state in significant number,” she said. And she said Pearce also has repeatedly made statements like “undocumented immigrants are criminals” or “are raising crime rates” without any evidence.
Pearce, however, said those claims are being taken out of context.
“I’m not uncomfortable with legal demographic changes at all,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with the illegal alien crowd,” with the number of those in this state illegally somewhere between 450,000 and 600,000.
“Yes, I’m very uncomfortable with that,” Pearce continued. “But it has to do with illegal, not with anything else.”
He acknowledged that the measure says an officer must first have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is an illegal immigrant before further questioning. But Guttentag dismissed that language as meaningless.
“Reasonable suspicion of what?” he asked.
Perales said the only basis officers would have to suspect someone is in this country illegally would be their own observation.
“There’s really nothing much there other than having officers look at people and make decisions about the way they look and the way they sound and the language that they’re speaking or who they’re standing next to,” she said. “For us, that is a very clear indication that the targets of this law are people who, on visual inspection, look to a police officer like they are minority or foreign born, regardless of their legal status, because legal status cannot be observed with the eye.”
Pearce, however, said officers look at the totality of the circumstances, including whether someone who is stopped can produce a driver’s license — which in Arizona is proof of legal presence — as well as other statements made to officers.
But Guttentag said that this law is not the way other laws operate which require officers to have reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.
“What this actually does is tell an officer you must act,” Guttentag said.
Pearce said the measure does require police to enforce the law on illegal immigration. But he said there is sufficient latitude, including the provision saying they have to act only when “practicable” and saying they don’t have to inquire about someone’s immigration status when it would interfere with an investigation.
But he conceded that the mandatory language — versus simply giving officers the option — was by design “because of the Phil Gordons of the world.” That refers to the Phoenix mayor, who Pearce said has been a proponent of city policies that discourage officers from inquiring into the immigration status of those they contact.
The lawsuit names the sheriffs and county attorneys of the state’s 15 counties.
A spokesman for Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said he had no immediate comment.