WASHINGTON — Rebuffing challenges from a senior U.S. senator, the author of Arizona’s immigration law on Tuesday defended both the legality and the wisdom of his measure.
Former state Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee that Arizona lawmakers chose to act in 2010 after it became clear the federal government was not adequately enforcing federal immigration laws.
He told panel members — at least the two who attended — that SB 1070 does not regulate immigration but instead uses the state’s “inherent police power” to regulate those not in the country legally “consistent with the objectives of federal law.”
It is not Congress, though, that Pearce needs to convince. The real legal battle unfolds Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the question of whether four key sections of the law illegally tread into areas reserved for the federal government.
But Tuesday’s hearing and Wednesday’s court arguments clearly are linked. In fact, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs the panel — and purposely scheduled the hearing for just before the Supreme Court arguments — said if the justices do not strike down the Arizona law, he will introduce legislation to spell out clearly that only Congress can adopt immigration restrictions — and that states can act only with “an explicit agreement with the federal government and are being supervised and trained by federal officials.”
“States like Arizona and Alabama will no longer be able to get away with saying they are simply ‘helping the federal government’ to enforce the law when they are really writing their own laws and knowingly deploying untrained officers with a mission of arresting anyone and everyone who might fit the preconceived profile of an illegal immigrant,” he said.
Schumer’s chances of getting such a bill through a Republican-controlled House are minimal. But the legislation might serve Democratic political goals by forcing GOP lawmakers to take an election-year stance on the issue.
The issue of racial profiling was central to the hearing.
Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini said the law puts police into a difficult situation.
“Police officers are trained to profile behavior, not people,” he testified. “This law does the opposite. If you have brown skin in my state, you’re going to be asked to prove your citizenship.”
Schumer said it certainly appeared that way.
One section of the law requires police to determine the immigration status of those they have stopped if there is “reasonable suspicion” this person is in this country illegally.
While the statute does not define that, the state Police Officers Standards and Training Board came up with a list of things an officer might consider. And Schumer noted one of those things is how someone is dressed.
“What does an illegal immigrant dress like?” he asked.
Pearce said that is just one item in a whole list of what an officer might consider, a list that Pearce said was put together with help from federal immigration officials. Other factors include whether a person is evasive in answering questions or appears particularly nervous.
“It’s a compilation of issues that tend to raise the level of suspicion to the level of probable cause” to believe a law has been violated. “It’s not any one isolated instance.”
State Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said Pearce is half right on the question of what constitutes reasonable suspicion.
“It’s not by clothing,” he said. “It’s by the color of their skin. End of discussion.”
Pearce said SB 1070 has nothing to do with race.
“Illegal is a crime, not a race,” he said. “It doesn’t pick out any nationality. It just so happened that 95 percent of those who violate our immigration laws come from across that southern border or are Hispanic.”
And Pearce said police cannot ignore what may appear out of place, comparing it to three young children playing in the age-restricted community of Sun City at 3 a.m.
“I don’t care what color they are, they’re going to get stopped and questioned,” he said.
DeConcini, who used to be Pima County attorney and now serves on the Arizona Board of Regents, said all the rhetoric does not hide the true targets of the law.
“If anyone tells you it is only the gun- and drug-trafficking criminals they are mistaken,” he said.
“SB 1070 targets those with brown skin,” he said. “And in my state, those are my neighbors, my friends, successful business associates.”
Pearce actually found himself alone in defending the law.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the legislation, rebuffed the invitation by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to explain the measure even though she is at the Capitol this week to attend today’s high court hearing. Matthew Benson, her press aide, called it a “publicity stunt.”
But the meeting also was ignored by Senate Republicans, with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl saying the timing of it one day before the Supreme Court hearing makes it “strictly political theater” designed either to influence the court or generate publicity.
There were clear political elements to the hearing.
Schumer argued for “comprehensive immigration reform” favored by many Democrats which he said includes not only securing the border but addressing the status of those already in this country illegally. Republicans have tended to rebuff talk of anything else until the border is secure.
And Sen. Richard Durbin, R-Ill., the only other lawmaker to attend, used the opportunity to push his DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for those brought to this country illegally as children but who attend college or enlist in the military. Pearce, however, was not interested.
“It’s a blanket amnesty for those folks,” he said. “There’s a cost to American taxpayers for all this.”
Schumer also said all the evidence shows that the federal government is doing a better job of securing the border, not only based on the number of officers enforcing the law but the reduction in apprehensions as well as the new study showing net illegal migration is close to zero. He said that should make laws like SB 1070 unnecessary.
But Pearce said that still leaves those already in the country illegally. And he made it clear that more needs to be done to remove them.
“Laws without consequences are no laws at all,” he said.
“We’re a generous nation,” Pearce said. “But, yes, the laws must be enforced.”
Schumer complained that the Arizona law makes no distinctions based on how long someone has been in this country and even whether they have minor children who are U.S. citizens. But Pearce noted that is the same with federal law.