Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Top five immigration stories of 2010, #1: Arizona's SB 1070

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

It's been a year in which immigration has played a part in everything from the economy and the 2010 census to the California governor's race, making it tough to limit the year's biggest immigration stories to a list of only five. The stories we have reviewed this week have included the tragic massacre of migrants near the Texas border in Tamaulipas, which highlighted just how dangerous clandestine passage to the United States has become; the record number of deportations under the Obama administration, part of an enforcement trade-off for broader reforms that never came; the controversial enforcement programs Secure Communities and 287(g); and the Dream Act, which prompted an unexpected student movement in support of its proposed conditional status for undocumented college students and military hopefuls.

But one that's likely to have a lingering effect on immigration politics, at least in the next few years, is that of Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration law, known as SB 1070.

Signed last April by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, the law drew the most controversy over a state immigration measure since California's Proposition 187 in 1994, and brought the highly polarized immigration debate back squarely into the foreground of national and state politics.

Its provisions, while based on federal immigration law, seemed especially stringent at the state level: Among other things, the law empowered local police to check the immigration status of people they encountered if they had "reasonable suspicion" to think they were in the country illegally, made it a state crime to be in Arizona without proper documentation, made it illegal for state or local officials to adopt policies restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws (so-called "sanctuary" policies), and made it illegal to shelter, transport or give work to undocumented immigrants.

The "reasonable suspicion" clause drew the most ire from immigrant advocates and immigrant communities in general, who saw it as state-sanctioned racial profiling, with little way for police to distinguish between foreign nationals and nonwhite U.S. citizens and legal residents. A flurry of lawsuits followed, among them a federal lawsuit challenging the measure on the grounds that its provisions were pre-empted by federal law. On July 29, when the law went into effect amid widespread protests, it did so only partially, with a federal judge having blocked the most controversial provisions, including the clause allowing police to check for immigration status.

What continues to make SB 1070 such an important story are its ramifications beyond Arizona, which will be playing out in the years to come. Even with some of its provisions still hung up in appeals court by the pending federal challenge, SB 1070 has emboldened conservative state legislators around the country to draft their own versions of the law, some just as strict or more so than the original. From a recent Bloomberg story:

About 300 immigration-related bills were introduced in statehouses in 2005, said Ann Morse, who directs the Immigrant Policy Project for the National Conference of State Legislatures. In each of the last two years, the figure reached about 1,500, she said.

In 2011, state legislators could push the number higher. “Every indication I get is, they’re not done,” Morse said.

Those drafting SB 1070-style laws are receiving help from veterans of the Arizona law. From the story:
Many of the efforts are getting help from a central source, the Immigration Reform Law Institute. At the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to crack down on illegal immigration, the institute’s attorneys are drafting measures.

“I’ve been personally approached by lawmakers from all over the country,” said Kris Kobach, a counsel for the group who helped to draft Arizona’s “probable cause” law.

Even in California, where the state legislature would be unlikely to approve such a measure, a voter initiative for a similar law has been submitted for the 2012 state ballot.

Part of the logic to SB 1070 that made it attractive to its supporters, and which continues to drive its imitators, is the idea of attrition through enforcement: Make life tough enough for people who are in the country illegally, the thinking goes, and many will opt to leave.

Before the law was partially enacted in July, there were anecdotal reports of Latino immigrants leaving the state out of fear. Intitial 2010 census results showed slowed-down population growth in Arizona, though demographers disagree on how much of an effect SB 1070 might have had, since the law was signed April 23, more than two weeks after the April 1 census count.

Another lasting effect: The measure has helped set the tone for the enforcement-heavy nature of the federal measures that Republican leaders, who will take leadership of the House and have a greater Senate presence come January, are expected to promote in the next two years.