United States v. Arizona

“S.B. 1070 is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and must be struck down.”

The U.S. Justice Department wrote it plainly, dismissing any ambiguity or confusion of how the Obama Administration views Arizona’s new law making it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant.

Less than a week after the president gave a speech to the nation on the subject of immigration in which he revealed nothing about a court challenge, the federal government is now officially calling SB 1070 unconstitutional, and joining five other lawsuits, including one by the ACLU, in an attempt to block the law. With only a few weeks before SB 1070 is scheduled to go into effect, the nation will be watching closely to see if the judge assigned to the case grants a temporary injunction.

Valeria Fernandez reported in New America Media that Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former Democratic Arizona state senator and editor of La Frontera Times, described his response to the lawsuit as “a real sense of relief.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was the first administration official to let it slip that a federal lawsuit was coming. Immigrant rights advocates have been putting the pressure on the administration to take a stand and block the law.

In its brief, the Justice Department listed what it sees as the dangers and negative outcomes of SB 1070, saying that it would disrupt federal enforcement, and place an unfair burden on federal agencies, “diverting resources and attention from the dangerous aliens who the federal government targets as its top enforcement priority.” Though Arizona is partnered with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the 287(g) program to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the state, the Justice Department says SB 1070 crosses the line and is a preemption of federal authority.

“Although states may exercise their police power in a manner that has an incidental or indirect effect on aliens, a state may not establish its own immigration policy or enforce state laws in a manner that interferes with the federal immigration laws. The Constitution and the federal immigration laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country.”

This is an issue guaranteed to fan partisan flames–as it’s really a question of federalism vs. states’ rights. Predictably, Republicans in Congress were up in arms about the lawsuit. 20 members of the House criticized it in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. John McCain and Jon Kyl, the U.S. Senators from Arizona – both Republicans, put out a joint statement saying that “the American people must wonder whether the Obama Administration is really committed to securing the border when it sues a state that is simply trying to protect its people by enforcing immigration law.”

Even though President Obama dedicated a lot of his speech to better enforcement, and was sure to mention that there are “more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any other time in our history,” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer says the lawsuit will weaken security in the state.

“As a direct result of failed and inconsistent federal enforcement, Arizona is under attack from violent Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling cartels. Now, Arizona is under attack in federal court from President Obama and his Department of Justice,” Brewer said. “Today’s filing is nothing more than a massive waste of taxpayer funds.”

Many immigrant rights groups applauded the administration’s move, and asked for more. “The federal government is taking an important step to reassert its authority over immigration policy in the United States,” said Benjamin Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council, in a statement. “While a legal challenge by the Department of Justice won’t resolve the public’s frustration with our broken immigration system, it will seek to define and protect the federal government’s constitutional authority to manage immigration.”

But others worried that the lawsuit would hurt the chances for comprehensive immigration reform. “I worry about the political consequences,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorksUSA, a non-profit group that organizes the business sector around immigration reform. “I’d like the administration to make its views heard in another way.”

A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans are about equally divided — 50% to 45% — over whether the government’s main focus should be on border enforcement to stop the flow of immigrants coming into the U.S., or on developing a plan to deal with those already here.

On the streets of Phoenix, the immigrant population is reacting positively. Marcelo Quiñonez, a 26-year-old high school English teacher, described the move as “a monumental step” by the federal government to show other states that are trying to pass anti-immigrant legislation that they’re going down the wrong path.

“It’s also telling the nation as a whole that racism won’t be tolerated,” he said. “It’s a great victory for the immigrant community in Arizona.”

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.