The great national debate over illegal immigration just entered the federal courts, perhaps the beginning of a new path toward finding a consensus on this divisive issue.
On Wednesday, US District Court Judge Susan Bolton temporarily blocked key parts of the new Arizona law on illegal immigration, a day before the full law was to take effect. Now a long process of court appeals will act as a surrogate debate for what is fundamentally a political problem – in large part because Congress has failed to act.
Judge Bolton didn’t begrudge the state trying to act on a problem that the federal government claims exclusive responsibility for but has failed to solve. She cited the state’s interests in controlling illegal immigration, along with the “concurrent problems with crime including the trafficking of humans, drugs, guns, and money.”
She should know, living in Arizona, a state whose border is the most heavily trafficked for illegal crossings among southern states. Perhaps because of her local sensitivities, her decision can be read in part as a legal guide to finding compromises on the thorniest issues of jurisdiction. (She also cited poor wording in one area of the law as part of her decision.)
Bolton’s chief concern is for legal immigrants who might have their rights violated under aspects of the law, which is called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. They might be detained too long by police for not having legal status papers, or they would have to carry papers not required by federal law.
These are legitimate concerns, but they can be addressed by Arizona or other states contemplating such a law. It may be possible to require only a driver’s license or other nonimmigrant documents. And a reasonable time for detention can be determined so as not to violate an immigrant’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Her decision also cites the limited resources of the federal government to handle requests from states about immigration law. Again, this is not really a legal issue but a matter of resources with the Department of Homeland Security.
States and federal officials can easily come to an agreement on how to handle workloads. Or Washington can decide to allocate more help to the states – as it already does under federal-state programs on immigration matters.
The judge found many parts of the law worth keeping, those that maintain the building blocks of such laws that can meet constitutional muster.
In fact, this decision may help spur further efforts by states, now that they have a hint at the legal boundaries and because the long appeals process might only delay action by Congress.
The answers aren’t easy, and the courts certainly can’t address them all. But doing something is better than the status quo of Congress doing very little. That’s probably why Bolton took pains to both encourage Arizona while also writing a lengthy explanation for her decision.