The new state law requiring police to check the legal status of suspected illegal immigrants has triggered lawsuits, protests and boycotts. Nevertheless, polls show most Americans back it. NPR spoke with two supporters for perspective on its potential benefits.
Arizona's immigration law has gotten nothing but bad press since its enactment last month.
The law, which requires police to check the citizenship or residency status of anyone they have reason to suspect is an illegal immigrant, has already drawn several legal challenges. On Tuesday, the city councils of Flagstaff and Tucson each voted to sue the state. The Justice Department may sue as well.
The Arizona Republic devoted its entire front page Sunday to an editorial that criticized the law for intimidating "Latinos while doing nothing to curb illegal immigration." The measure has triggered protests and prompted boycotts of the state from multiple jurisdictions and organizations around the country.
Despite all the criticism, however, the new law retains considerable popular support. A nationwide Gallup poll released last week found that Americans back it by a 51 to 39 percent margin.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released Monday also found that 51 percent of Americans support the law, with another 9 percent saying they believe it doesn't go far enough. Only 36 percent believe it goes too far.
NPR conducted separate interviews with two supporters of the law to talk about its appeal and intended effects. Bob Dane is director of communications for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington-based group that favors stricter immigration limits and helped draft the Arizona law. Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, another group in Washington that seeks lower immigration levels.
Why was the Arizona law necessary?
"It's an additional tool in the toolkit for police officers," Krikorian says. "This gives them a state offense to arrest or prosecute illegal immigrants for, in case the feds aren't interested.
"The bill has other parts to it. For instance, it prohibits sanctuary cities, making it a state law to bar cooperation with immigration authorities, which is already a federal law. Importantly, it permits citizens to sue jurisdictions that are blocking enforcement of federal law. That's something that's absent from federal law, which provides no penalties."
Dane says that every state has illegal immigration, "but the phenomenon in Arizona brings with it a disproportionate impact -- crime, kidnapping and drugs. You've had three police officers killed by illegal aliens in the last 10 years. It's not a surprise that a state with a tougher problem has a tougher law."
What effects do you expect the law to have on the illegal immigration problem?
"The net effect of the law most importantly will be that in Arizona police officers and the state will no longer be in a catch-and-release mode," Dane says. "If illegal aliens are identified through a lawful process, it's now required that they're transferred to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
Krikorian says the new law "will be modestly helpful. The point is supposed to be getting more cops inquiring more often about immigration status. The law says they have to, but also says, 'when practical.' It's an effort by the legislature to encourage more use of immigration tools by the police.
"The real effect has already happened: The exaggeration of its effects has already scared illegals from the state," Krikorian says. "The fear-mongering has served the purposes of the bill's sponsors."
The bill has already drawn several lawsuits. Do you think it will survive these challenges?
"The lawsuits just don't have that much substance," Krikorian says. "To begin with, this bill wasn't cooked up on somebody's table. It was drafted by constitutional scholars specifically to withstand legal scrutiny.
"It doesn't create any new crimes; it just creates a state statute to parallel federal ones," he says. "The two contentious provisions -- that make it a requirement that an alien register with the government and then carry their paperwork with them at all times -- those have both been federal law since 1940. It's not like it resembles the federal law -- they're actually giving the U.S. code citations in the law."
Arizona has fended off legal challenges to previous immigration measures, Krikorian says.
But opponents say that enforcing the law will necessarily intrude on constitutional rights or result in racial profiling.
"There's been massive disinformation about this," Dane says. "Profiling is not part of the picture in this bill. The law affords every possible protection, not least of which are protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"People are beginning to understand that a police officer needs to abide by lawful contact," Dane says. "He has to have some other reason to pull you aside. While it remains absent from page one of every newspaper in the country, it is in fact on page one of the bill that no police officer can use race, ethnic origin, color or country of origin as a basis to form reasonable suspicion."
Do you think that this law will become a model for other states?
"As long as Washington diddles on enforcement and continues to dismantle meaningful enforcement, then you've got an emerging patchwork at the state level," Dane says. "It's the right and responsibility of local governments to discourage illegal immigrants.
"It is reasonable, it is legal, it is a fiscal necessity for jurisdictions to move legal residents to the front of the line and remove illegal aliens. If the states look the other way and try to help everybody, the lifeboat sinks and nobody is helped," Dane says.
Many anti-immigration measures that were considered controversial or harsh a few years ago have since won mainstream acceptance. Do you think that could happen over time with this law?
"About 10 years ago, the Clinton administration started audits of personnel records of Nebraska meatpacking plants, so they wouldn't have to do raids," Krikorian says. "Everyone went berserk; it was a cutting edge thing. (Attorney General) Janet Reno was forced to fire the INS official who came up with the idea. [The Immigration and Naturalization Service was the forerunner agency to ICE.]
"Now, audits of personnel records are the Obama administration's fallback, their kinder, gentler version of enforcement," Krikorian says.
"The center of gravity is moving in the direction of the immigration hawks," he says. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.