When Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, signed into law a new immigration bill last Friday she could have had little doubt that she would be courting controversy. The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, now better known as SB 1070, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a punishable offence; it also gives police sweeping powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
While the Ms. Brewer's administration has argued the law will help identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants, critics including representatives of the Latin American immigrant communities — who would be most affected by the changes — have condemned the legislation as excessively stringent.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund said it “strongly condemns” the action of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. It said the law was “an unconstitutional and costly measure that will violate the civil rights of all Arizonans. It will jeopardise public safety and subject Arizona's Latinos and newcomers to discrimination and racial profiling.”
President Obama also criticised the bill ahead of it being signed into law. In a televised address, he called the law “irresponsible” and that it threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that Americans cherished, including the trust between police and local communities.
He said, “I have instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation. But if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.”
As per the new law, a law enforcement officer, without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has “probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.”
The significant shift in the discretionary power that such wording would give Arizona police to target immigrant communities is exacerbated by other clauses of the bill too: “Where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.”
The NALEO Educational Fund said that it would join state-wide efforts “to challenge this unconstitutional measure in court.” It argued that the enactment of SB 1070 highlighted the urgent need for federal legislation to fix the nation's broken immigration system, calling on the President and Congress to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality in 2010.