Arizona reaches settlement on controversial immigration law

The state concluded a drawn out legal battle with rights groups this week, after years of debate about requirements that law enforcement officials check the immigration status of individuals suspected of being illegal immigrants. 

Alonso Castillo/ Reuters/ File
Demonstrators take part in a protest at the border crossing point during the first official day of Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 immigration law in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora, July 29, 2010. Arizona ended six years of conflict over a controversial state immigration law when it announced a settlement with immigrant rights groups on Thursday.

Arizona ended six years of conflict over a controversial state immigration law when it announced a settlement with immigrant rights groups on Thursday.

As part of the settlement, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued an informal opinion laying out guidelines for how to enforce the measure, known as SB 1070. The state will limit police officers' powers to determine individuals' immigration status, or detain them, over suspicions that they might be in the US illegally. 

"Our goal while negotiating this settlement was to find a common-sense solution that protects Arizona taxpayers while helping our great state move forward," said Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Under SB 1070, which was passed in 2010, local police officers were required to check an individual's immigration status if there was a "reasonable suspicion" that the individual might be in the country illegally, even if the individual was being stopped for crimes unrelated to immigration status.

The law was inspired by some Arizonans' fears that illegal immigration was spurring drug cartel growth and taking jobs away from American citizens – concerns that have been echoed across the country, and emphasized during this year's presidential election.

As part of the settlement, Brnovich issued a nonbinding opinion giving guidelines for the law's enforcement: specifying that officers could not "prolong a stop, detention or arrest solely for the purpose of verifying immigration status," and that they should not take race or nationality into account, unless as part of a suspect description. Police officers may still ask for papers, but are not required to, Brnovich wrote. 

"The legislators who passed SB 1070 were envisioning an Arizona where every police officer would be able to detain people based on their immigration status, and the opinion by the attorney general recognizes for the first time that this is illegal," ACLU Immigrants Rights Project director Cecilia Wang told The New York Times.

SB 1070 originally passed 35 to 21 in Arizona's House of Representatives, and 17 to 11 in the state Senate, in 2010. For many, the law was simply a common sense measure, although critics say that the law was an explicit and unlawful attempt by the state to take a federal power (immigration control) into its own hands, and would lead to racial profiling. 

The "reasonable suspicion" clause immediately provoked controversy, with critics of the law saying that the vague wording of the law meant that Hispanic individuals would be unjustly targeted by police officers during traffic stops and other actions.

"The explicit purpose of the SB 1070 was to create attrition through enforcement – to make life so miserable that people would leave the state," ACLU senior staff attorney Andre Segura tells The Christian Science Monitor. 

After the law was passed, Mexico prepared to receive a spate of deportees as a result of the questioning requirement, making sure that shelters had additional food and beds to receive returning immigrants.

The legislation quickly encountered the first of its many legal challenges, with a federal judge issuing a temporary injunction within a week of its passage, temporarily ending the requirement that police officers check the immigration status of suspicious individuals.

Since then, it has faced ongoing challenges in court, including a Supreme Court ruling in 2012, which dismantled three sections of the law, but upheld the requirement to check the immigration status of suspected illegal immigrants. By this year, most of the original provisions in the law had been dismantled. The questioning requirement that Attorney General Brnovich addressed this week was one of the few remaining provisions.

In the meantime, other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, have passed similarly stringent laws and measures, many of which have also been challenged. For some, the repercussions went beyond the courtroom, or issues directly related to immigration: Arizona, for example, lost corporate business and the opportunity to host a number of events after some companies and groups called for boycotts. Similarly, Mr. Segura told the Monitor that many states suffered public safety consequences, after many Hispanic residents became unwilling to call the police for any reason.

"This marks a shift in the public perception of really draconian, anti-immigrant policies," says Segura, who tells the Monitor that many states who had similarly harsh policies have now amended them, sometimes after legal battles.

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