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The politics of SB 1070

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As frenzied political junkies begin to chatter about the fight for the Latino vote in November, another fight is coming to Washington much sooner. Next week, the highest court in the land will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB 1070. The Court has the potential to, in the name of fighting undocumented immigration, officially condone the use of racial profiling and discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities, even if they may be legal residents or, ironically citizens and the precious voters both parties are trying to attract.

The decision, which is expected to be handed down in June, will land with a splash in the middle of the presidential campaign. It has the potential to sharpen the contrasts between a president, Barack Obama, who supports comprehensive immigration reform while setting records for deportation, and an (almost-certain) Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who is now doing the typical candidate dance to the center to appeal to independent and moderate voters in the general election. Most important perhaps is attracting Latinos, whom he has isolated for the past several months with anti-immigrant positions.

The Supreme Court case marks another contrast: Obama’s Department of Justice is the plaintiff in the case, having sued Arizona for usurping the role of the federal government in setting immigration laws. Romney, for his part, has said that if he were elected one of his first actions would be withdrawing the lawsuits against Arizona and other states that have passed their own immigration laws.

Furthermore, the mastermind behind SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant state laws (like Alabama’s HB 56), Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is—was? will be?—an advisor to Romney on immigration. One of the steps in a candidate’s dance to the center is to distance himself from controversial figures who have the potential to alienate certain voter blocs, and Kobach could turn Hispanic voters off of Romney even more. So Romney’s campaign now claims that Kobach is not an advisor, though Kobach himself insists that he remains in touch with the campaign.

Of course, in January, when Kobach endorsed Romney, the candidate said that “Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country.”

The political repercussions of SB 1070 are already being felt within Arizona. Last November, Russell Pearce, then president of the State Senate and the chief sponsor of SB 1070, was removed from office in the wake of a recall election in his heavily conservative and Republican district.

Post-election analyses revealed that voters were fed up with the senator’s obsessive focus on passing a single law—SB 1070—that was having harsh economic effects in a state already hurting from the recession, and tired of his divisiveness and inflammatory rhetoric.

Gary Segura, a professor of political science at Stanford and a principal at the polling firm Latino Decisions, thinks that regardless of the outcome of the case, SB 1070 will have political implications in both the short-term and long-term. It could be of particular benefit, he says, to Democrats.

“If SB 1070 is upheld, Latinos will be inflamed, Republicans will embrace it and Latino turnout and enthusiasm for the election will go up. If SB 1070 is struck down, largely because the president authorized the Justice Department to sue, the president gets the benefit of all of that and you can expect Republicans to denounce the Court and to say predictably awful things about Latinos. So it’s kind of good for Obama either way,” Segura says.

First of all, “because it keeps the issue on the front burner, which helps him with Latino voters, and it does not really hurt him among whites,” Segura explains. Voters for whom immigration is a “number one” issue, he adds, already vote Republican.

While some consider Obama’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform—a promise he made during his 2008 campaign—to have opened the door for laws like SB 1070, Segura argues that while Latino voters will probably make that connection, “he has the perfect comeback, which is that there is not a single Republican legislator willing to sign on to comprehensive immigration reform.”

“If the other party was reasonably competing for Latino votes, he’d [Obama] be in a lot of trouble for his inaction [on immigration reform], and the deportations, and the whole inadequacy of his handling of the issue, but he benefits, as Democrats have for generations, from comparison to this sort of xenophobic, ethnocentric, social conservative Republicans.”

That’s exactly the type of Republican next week’s Supreme Court argument spotlights, as it considers a law championed by anti-immigrant stalwarts like Kobach, linked to a Republican presidential candidate like Romney, which has the potential to discriminate against the same Latino voters Romney’s now trying to win over.

Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America’s Voice.