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News is spreading that the Obama Administration is considering a legal challenge to Arizona’s radical new immigration law, SB1070. For those of us interested in civil rights, community safety, and the rule of law, let us hope so.
If and when the Department of Justice announces a decision to sue the state of Arizona, most Republicans will explode with outrage, some Democrats will cower in fear, and the punditry will quickly declare the Obama Administration’s action as bad short-term politics. After all, the country wants action on illegal immigration, the Arizona law represents action, and a federal lawsuit seems to represent an attempt to stop action.
A historic moment of truth for civil rights and the Constitution
But what will be missing from the insta-rage and insta-analysis will be the following: The “show me your papers” Arizona law and the resulting litigation will go down in history as a pivotal moment for civil rights and the sovereignty of the Constitution in America. The larger issues raised in this court case, the ones that will reverberate throughout history, are as follows.
In terms of the Constitution, Arizona litigation will re-open a crucial question: who controls immigration policy, the feds or the states? Legal experts believe the constitution confers authority on Congress and the national government, limiting the states’ abilities to create an unruly patchwork of conflicting immigration policies.
Perhaps more to the point, however, the legal challenge will force us to consider whether it is right for any jurisdiction in America to place a target squarely on the backs of Latinos – most of whom are citizens and legal residents – in what amounts to a breathtaking institutionalization of racism. Does it pass constitutional muster to sacrifice the liberties of an entire ethnic group in order to pursue a policy of expelling some of its members for lacking the proper papers?