Published: March 4, 2011
Washington’s inaction on immigration reform has left the states feeling abandoned and wondering what to do. When the frustration boils over, as it has most scarily in Arizona, Republicans have been pushing what amounts to vigilantism — states taking on federal enforcement, shouldering aside civil rights and the Constitution and spending whatever it takes to get rid of illegal immigrants. It’s a seductively simple vision, and lawmakers across the country are grasping at it, pushing Arizona-style copycat laws.
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Thank goodness for the pushback. In dozens of states considering such crackdowns — including Nebraska, Indiana, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — elected officials, law enforcers, business owners, religious leaders and regular citizens are providing the calm voices and cool judgment that are lacking in the shimmering heat of Phoenix.
They are reminding their representatives that replacing federal immigration policy with a crazy quilt of state-led enforcement schemes is only a recipe for more lawlessness and social disruption, for expensive lawsuits and busted budgets, lost jobs and boycotts. And all without fixing the problem.
This isn’t just an immigrants’ cause. Business owners in places like Kansas and Texas, the attorney general in Indiana, Catholic and Protestant bishops in Mississippi — these and hundreds of other community leaders have been sending a contrary message.
The businesses say bills to force employers to check workers’ legal status are redundant, costly and anticompetitive. The clergy members have denounced bills to criminalize acts of charity, like driving an undocumented immigrant to church or the doctor. Lawyers have said new layers of enforcement paperwork would heavily burden legitimate business and overwhelm state bureaucracies.
Police chiefs and sheriffs are leading the skeptical resistance to the bills, which frequently involve having local police checking the immigration status of people they stop. A report released on Thursday by a national police research group looked at cities where police officials had been drawn into heated immigration debates. Its conclusions: federal enforcement is no job for local officers, who should be forbidden to arrest or detain people solely because of their immigration status.
The reasons: it costs too much, prompts false-arrest lawsuits and frightens law-abiding immigrants. “I have a responsibility to provide service to the entire community — no matter how they got here,” said Chief Charlie Deane of the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia. “It is in the best interest of our community to trust the police.”
The chiefs of Nebraska’s two largest police departments — in Lincoln and Omaha — recently told the State Legislature basically the same thing.
A peculiar mix of nativism and immigration panic has pushed the immigration debate far out into the desert of extremism. It’s going to take a serious effort by saner voices to ensure that what happens in Arizona stays there.