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Obama Calls for Immigration Reform as Arizona Enacts Controversial Measure

April 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Arizona's governor signed a new law cracking down on illegal immigration, but President Obama voiced concerns that the measure could violate civil rights. Jeffrey Brown talks to Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and Mike Hethmon of the Immigration Law Reform Institute about potential changes in U.S. immigration policy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Immigration law was in the spotlight today in Washington, where the president called national policy broken, and in Arizona, where the governor approved a tough new law aimed at illegal immigrants.

In Phoenix, as protesters and supporters of the measure flocked to the state capital today, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed one of the country’s strictest immigration laws.

GOV. JAN BREWER, R-Ariz.: It protects all of us, every Arizona citizen, and everyone here in our state lawfully. And it does so while ensuring that the constitutional rights of all in Arizona remain solid, stable, and steadfast.

JEFFREY BROWN: That announcement came just hours after President Obama attended a naturalization ceremony for 24 members of the U.S. military.

From the Rose Garden, he called Arizona’s effort misguided and raised concerns that other states could follow if Congress doesn’t take up national immigration reform soon.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others. And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president said his administration would examine the Arizona measure to see if it violates federal civil rights statutes.

Among other provisions, the law calls on police to question someone’s immigration status if — quote — “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”

Arizona is believed to have some 460,000 illegal immigrants, with the most illegal border crossings in the country. Tensions there grew last month when rancher Bob Krentz was shot to death in southeastern Arizona. Authorities believe he was killed by an illegal migrant, but the case remains open.

Governor Brewer, a Republican, faces a tough primary reelection challenger in the upcoming primary who supported the passage of the bill. Responding to fears the bill would lead to racial profiling, the governor issued an executive order today to train law enforcement officers in the new provisions.

GOV. JAN BREWER: The laws in Senate Bill 1070, mirror the loss of the federal government. Police officers are going to be respectful. They understand what their jobs are. They have taken an oath. And racial profiling is illegal.

JEFFREY BROWN: The law will go into effect 90 days after Arizona legislative session ends.

And joining us for more on today’s developments are Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Arizona’s seventh district, which shares a 300-mile border with Mexico, and Michael Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration Law Reform Institute. He helped write the Arizona bill.

Mr. Hethmon, you worked with the people in Arizona. Why did they feel this bill was — this law was necessary?

MICHAEL HETHMON, general counsel, Immigration Law Reform Institute: Well, this is the — the cumulation of an effort by Senator Pearce and other legislators since 2004 to deal with the federal government’s failure to develop a viable, sustainable immigration policy, which means control of illegal immigration and the reduction of legal immigration to sustainable levels.

They — they have — are tired of waiting and believe that the crisis has reached a point in Arizona that — that they had no choice but to — to continue in the direction that they have been going.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman, I want to go into the merits, but, first, what about this argument that the absence of federal action sort of gave Arizona a place to — a need to go ahead with something?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA, D-Ariz.: I would generally agree with that.

But the absence of federal action, it is kind of ironic that Senator Pearce, the father of this legislation, has opposed any federal initiative, whether it is the STRIVE act, whether it is the DREAM act, whether it is ag jobs bill. Any path to legalization has been opposed.

So, you know, I — it’s a convenient excuse to say we want to control immigration and we want to limit immigration and, at the same time, provide no reasonable, rational approach to it.

I think this legislation is a harbinger for very bad things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me…

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I think it’s to fundamental…

JEFFREY BROWN: No, go ahead. I’m sorry.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I think it will be found unconstitutional.

And when you talk about profiling, I thought the governor’s effort and executive order was kind of interesting. Russell Pearce will be driving down the street without his wallet. A policeman will stop him, pat him on the hand and send him home.

I will be driving down the street without a wallet, and I stand the chance of getting arrested, put in jail and fined $500. That is where the profiling will happen. And that’s the discriminatory aspect that has got so many of us in Arizona completely opposed to this bill, just on the punitive nature of it and isolating a group of people because of who they are, as opposed to applying the law equally to everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: I should say we are referring to Russell Pearce, who’s the state senator in Arizona who is largely one of the main backers here.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Yes.

MICHAEL HETHMON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mr. Hethmon, on that issue, the — the profiling issue that has galvanized so much of the controversy here, the language is a reasonable suspicion for an officer to feel that he should — he or she should check on the immigration status.

Why is that OK as a — as a legal standard?

MICHAEL HETHMON: Well, actually, the — the standard in the Arizona bill, reasonable suspicion that a person is unlawfully in the country, is much more modest than the federal standard established by the Supreme Court, which says that an officer, in a lawful stop, doesn’t need any reasonable suspicion at all to query the person about their immigration status.

So, what we are seeing in Arizona is a much more — more modest measure, which is designed to be practical and to deal with these wild kind of claims that Mr. Grijalva is making.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but, as a practical matter, as the congressman says, if — if Mr. Pearce is sitting there…

MICHAEL HETHMON: As a practical matter, if Representative Grijalva is pulled over for driving through a red light, and the officer stops him and says, “Sir, what is your immigration status?” and Mr. Grijalva says, I’m a United States citizen and proud of it, that’s the end of — that’s the end of the inquiry in this situation, unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Grijalva is making a false claim to U.S. citizens — so, U.S. citizens and legal residents are very well protected in this bill.

A lot of thought has gone into what happens in that scenario.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and, Congressman, we heard your governor today said that there would be new — more training for law enforcement people just to make sure that there are — there are no abuses here.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, that’s going to be the crux of the legal challenge, not only the racial profiling. And I think the president is correct. It’s misguided. And it needs to look — we need to investigate what its effect on civil rights is going to be.

And on this profiling issue, the fact that the governor has to do an executive order to set up a training program for officers to make sure there are no basic fundamental constitutional violations and violation of the anti-profiling federal law begs the question about whether this is reasonable and moderate, as the gentleman just said.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Hethmon, we saw the governor — the governor said today, actually, that the eyes of the nation are watching Arizona.

Is she right? Are there — are there efforts or would you be intending to push this approach in other states?

MICHAEL HETHMON: There have been over 1,000 immigration-related measures, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, introduced just this year, in the 2010 session.

There were 1,500 estimated in ’09, 1,500 in — in ’08. This is not something that came out of a vacuum. The senator has been working on this with the citizens of the state since the passage of Prop 200 in 2004.

Every time this issue has been put to the electorate down there, it has passed by majorities in the 60s to 70 percent. This is clearly the — you know, the will and the intention of the voters in that state. And it is — it is something that has been developed, in legal terms, in an incremental fashion, over the past five or six years. And the courts have upheld it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and — and — and, Congressman, that was the fear that you heard President Obama talk about today, that other states would begin to take action.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I — I — I couldn’t agree more with that fear.

But, you know, the majority rule, and I understand that. I understand that concept, and that is the concept of democracy. But there is also the protection of the minority that is part and parcel of our rule of law in this country.

And this — this bill, 1070, completely violates that protection of the minority. And I — and I would suggest that we’re talking about not just a legal issue here in Arizona. We have had many dark shadows over this state, politically speaking. And this is not only the most recent one, but probably the — the one with the most effect on the nationalization of this issue.

And it has to be nationalized. It’s a federal law. And a federal law is what needs to be reformed in this country. And allowing — you know, what if Russell Pearce tomorrow morning decided it that, you know, the Voting Rights Act is not something he likes, that maybe some people shouldn’t vote?

He gets the legislature to vote for it, gets the governor to sign it, and now what? We are now going to have that as the rule of the state, superseding the federal law? I don’t think so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Congressman…

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: That’s going to be the constitutional challenge that has to occur.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman, just briefly, do you — do you think this will give a big push toward a new national policy?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: I hope it adds urgency to it. And I hope it adds a push.

Unfortunately, members of Congress tend to run away from the issue of immigration because they are afraid of it, or they tend to exploit it because it — because it helps them politically, as we have seen in Arizona. It’s time for a little bit of spine and a lot of will to reform this law in a humane, secure, and legal manner, unlike what is happening in Arizona right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Mr. Hethmon, about the prospects for this affecting the national debate, national policy?

MICHAEL HETHMON: That was the intention of the legislators, I believe, when they enacted this process from the — from the very beginning.

The only difference I would have with Representative Grijalva is that, somehow, the idea that passing an amnesty bill is going to be the solution. We have 200, 300 million people worldwide that want to come to this — to this country. Amnesty won’t work. If they pass an amnesty bill, if he gets everything he wants, 18 months later, we’re going to be back in the same situation just like 1986.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, we will see what happens.

Michael Hethmon and Congressman…

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: The law needs to be reformed.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry? I’m sorry, Congressman?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: The law needs to be — the law needs to be reformed. And using boogeyman buzzwords like amnesty for all, open borders, that’s been the cache for the…

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: … for anybody that doesn’t want immigration. It’s time to deal with it rationally and realistically.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Thank you. We will have to leave it there.

Congressman Grijalva and Michael Hethmon, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL HETHMON: You’re very welcome.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Thank you.