AZ Anti-Immigrant Law Heads to SCOTUS

by Michael Sean Winters

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The United States Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments this week in the case Arizona v. United States. At issue is Arizona’s anti-immigration law, known as S. B. 1070, which requires police officers to ascertain the legal status of those they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally.

There are a variety of legal reasons why the Court can and should strike down the law. For obvious reasons, immigration policy is a federal, not a state, issue. If Arizona can find legal justification for police action that effectively creates a second juridical border, what is to keep California from pulling down the barriers that exist along its border with Mexico? Federal immigration law is enough of a mess without further complicating the issue by permitting all fifty states to enact their own separate provisions.

Additionally, S. B. 1070 is impossible to enforce without burdening the rights of citizens who happen to be Latino. The law, and those like it that have been adopted in Alabama and Louisiana, contains a provision that prohibits racial profiling but includes no criteria for evaluating police conduct in this regard. Arthur Hunter Jr., a judge in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in Louisiana, has an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post that examines this problem. He writes:

While presiding over a criminal case a few years ago – a prosecution for operating an automobile without documentation of lawful presence in the United states – I asked the arresting officer what, exactly, caused him to suspect that the defendant was not a legal U.S. citizen. “Because,” the officer said.

You do not have to be concerned about immigrants, only about the Constitution, to recognize the difficulty, and the danger, of permitting law enforcement agents to justify their actions with the single word “because.”

In their magnificent amicus curiae brief, joining the Obama administration’s argument against the Arizona law, the USCCB focused on the ways these state laws obstruct two of the primary goals of federal immigration policy. The brief states:

[T]he Conference has a strong interest in ensuring that courts adhere to two important goals of federal immigration law—the promotion of family unity and the protection of human dignity. The provisions of S.B. 1070 at issue in this case would hinder these critical federal objectives by replacing them with the single goal of reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona at all costs.

The issue of human dignity is at the root of all the Church’s social teachings, from our opposition to abortion and euthanasia, to our support for government programs that assist the poor. It will be curious to see if those conservative Catholic commentators who have spilt plenty of ink writing about the importance of human dignity on other issues will defend that principle on immigration. The bishops have done so. They cannot be charged with inconsistency here. But, I am waiting to hear what our friends at, and the American Principles Project have to say on the Arizona law.

It is especially incumbent upon our friends on the right to vocally oppose the Arizona law, and even more so its Alabama stepchild because, as the USCCB brief makes clear, there are issues of religious liberty at stake here. If there is a “war on religion” in this country, it is wise to recognize that the assaults come from all sides and that both parties should be called to task when they brush aside the practices of the Catholic community in pursuit of their policy objectives. It is as insidious, actually I think more insidious, to demand that the Catholic Church cease helping immigrants, as it is to require our insurance policies to become vehicles for the provision of contraception, is it not?

The Arizona law, and the other anti-immigrant laws it spawned, worry me at a deeper level than my concerns for the Constitution. There is a mean-spiritedness abroad in the land, always eager for a scapegoat, quick to denounce those with whom they disagree as “the other” and “un-American,” convinced that our nation’s social safety net must be made less secure in the interest of reducing the federal deficit while demanding no commensurate sacrifice from the wealthy. Ours is a culture in which the culture has taken the word “loser” and applied it to human beings who are not rich enough, or pretty enough, or buff enough, or Anglo enough, in direct contradiction of the most fundamental of Catholic moral principles: every person matters. The Church must do everything in its power to combat this mean-spiritedness and the bishops’ principled opposition to the Arizona law is evidence of such a willingness to combat it.

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