Arizona immigration law revised: backtracking or fine-tuning?

The need for changes to the controversial Arizona immigration law is evidence of its faults, critics say. Proponents say the substance of the law is unchanged.

Nelvin C. Cepeda/AP
Dueling protests took to the streets of San Diego on Saturday, one side protesting the new Arizona immigration law (background), the other calling for immigration reform (foreground).

Arizona’s controversial immigration law was revised over the weekend. The changes, specifying that police may only question the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally if they have already stopped them for a different reason, represent a state backtrack that critics are latching onto.

Since its April 24 signing, the law has prompted an avalanche of protests, three federal lawsuits, and the threat of boycotts. The revision will likely do little to assuage these concerns. Indeed, immigrant rights groups say it may even bring more concentrated action against the state.

“Now the police will have to think up a pretext for stopping you … such as ‘your hedges are trimmed improperly,’ or ‘your taillight is out,’ ” says Rosalind Gold, a senior analyst for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. “They are going to be really surprised when this doesn’t calm anyone down. This is a political cartoonists's full employment act.”

Supporters of the law insist such claims are exaggerated.

“Even without these amendments, police would not have been required to inspect the documents of people asking directions, or in situations in which such inquiries would interfere with their primary law enforcement responsibilities,” says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “[The law] was clearly meant to apply to situations in which police lawfully stopped an individual for some other offense and subsequently developed a reasonable suspicion that that person was in the country illegally, says Mr. Mehlman.”

Legislators have also removed the word “solely” from a section of the bill that barred officers from “solely” using race as grounds for suspecting someone is in the country illegally, because the locution could encourage racial profiling.

The need for a revision is proof enough of the law’s flaws, says Ben Johnson, executive director of the Immigration Policy Center. "That the Arizona legislature felt compelled to go back and amend this law after it had already been signed is a reflection of the strategy they have followed on this issue: shoot first, aim later,” he says. “Although the changes make the law less egregious than the original draft, the law remains fundamentally flawed.”

The law still allows police to unfairly question the residency status of people they encounter, says Mr. Johnson, and leaves the door open for racial profiling. “These changes do nothing to assuage the concerns of many communities that local police will use this law as a tool to engage in random fishing expeditions to root out undocumented immigrants in certain neighborhoods."

The episode points to the need for more evenhandedness in Arizona and a possible federal intervention, says Catharine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University. “Arizonans have legitimate concerns in regards to the heightened degree of violence and criminal activity taking place in their state,” she says.

“What the law’s revision tells us, however, is that these concerns need to be balanced with the respect for residents’ civil liberties,” says Ms. Wilson. “Since the overwhelming majority of Arizonans attribute their support of SB 1070 to the failure of federal involvement in the state, will we be seeing federal activity – like the presence of the National Guard – anytime soon?”


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