Make a fed­eral case over it

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

The Gallup folks tell us that Amer­i­cans, by a 17-point mar­gin, op­pose the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to go to court to chal­lenge the le­gal­ity of Ari­zona’s con­tro­ver­sial im­mi­gra­tion law. On this one, Amer­i­cans are wrong. Re­gard­less of where you stand on the Ari­zona law, there is plenty of room for dis­cus­sion of it. And, we be­lieve, the courthouse is a good place for that dis­cus­sion.

This one is worth mak­ing a fed­eral case over.

“Emo­tions run high on both sides of the is­sue,” Gallup said in re­port­ing that 50 per­cent of re­spon­dents op­pose the law­suit and 33 per­cent fa­vor it. “The sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of those in fa­vor and those op­posed to the law­suit say they feel strongly about their po­si­tion.”

No sur­prise there. No cur­rent is­sue — not same-sex mar­riage, not Iraq, not LeBron James — gen­er­ates as much heat as il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a sense of that heat in on­line com­ments gen­er­ated by this ed­i­to­rial. If you’re read­ing this on­line, just scroll down.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment law­suit right­fully ques­tions whether Ari­zona law­mak­ers, by giv­ing lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies the power to en­force im­mi­gra­tion law, il­le­gally stepped into what solely should be a fed­eral re­spon­si­bil­ity. It’s a solid ques­tion, one that must be an­swered be­fore other states get into the im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment busi­ness.

Law­mak­ers in 20 states have expressed in­ter­est in pass­ing a statute like Ari­zona’s, which di­rects po­lice, as they are en­forc­ing other laws, to ask about im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus if there is rea­son to be­lieve a per­son is il­le­gally in the U.S. Nine states, in­clud­ing Texas, filed a le­gal brief this week sid­ing with Ari­zona in the courthouse bat­tle with the feds.

We’re on record as fear­ing that the Ari­zona law, de­spite lan­guage aimed at pre­vent­ing it, will lead to pro­fil­ing. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has expressed sim­i­lar con­cern.

“These laws also have the po­ten­tial of vi­o­lat­ing the rights of in­no­cent Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and le­gal res­i­dents, mak­ing them sub­ject to pos­si­ble stops or ques­tion­ing be­cause of what they look like or how they sound,” the pres­i­dent said in a re­cent im­mi­gra­tion speech.

On the other hand, we see no rea­son why state and lo­cal law en­force­ment of­fi­cials should have to turn a blind eye to vi­o­la­tions of im­mi­gra­tion law, or, for that mat­ter, any fed­eral law. But how and when that should be done are tricky ques­tions. We trust the fed­eral courts to sort that out. That’s why we sup­port the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion law­suit that should lead to that res­o­lu­tion.

Here’s some­thing else on which we think most folks should be able to agree: If noth­ing else, the Ari­zona law and the re­sult­ing law­suit should nudge Congress to­ward the im­mi­gra­tion law over­haul that ev­ery­one knows is needed. The cur­rent sys­tem does not work. Any­body dis­agree?

“The sys­tem is bro­ken,” Obama said. “And ev­ery­body knows it.”

In his speech, the pres­i­dent sounded the oft-re­peated re­frain about the U.S. as “a nation of im­mi­grants.” We’d like to add a yes-but to that. What we have striven to be is a nation of le­gal im­mi­grants. As Obama noted, we now have an es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants within our bor­ders.

The law­suit chal­leng­ing the Ari­zona law is one prong in what must be a multi-faceted ap­proach to fig­ur­ing out what to do about the 11 mil­lion. Blan­ket amnesty is un­rea­son­able, just as un­rea­son­able as the no­tion of mass de­por­ta­tion.

“Now once we get past the two poles of this de­bate, it be­comes pos­si­ble to shape a prac­ti­cal, com­mon-sense ap­proach that re­flects our her­itage and our val­ues,” Obama said.

We agree with his ba­sic tenets, in­clud­ing a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for il­le­gal im­mi­grants and stiff penal­ties for em­ploy­ers who know­ingly hire il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

“We have to de­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity from peo­ple liv­ing here il­le­gally,” Obama said. “They must be re­quired to ad­mit that they broke the law. They should be re­quired to reg­is­ter, pay their taxes, pay a fine and learn English. They must get right with the law be­fore they can get in line and earn their cit­i­zen­ship.”

We need com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form, though we can’t seem to agree on ex­actly what that means. But fail­ure to find the po­lit­i­cal will to come up with con­sen­sus car­ries great peril for our nation.

With­out na­tion­wide con­sen­sus, we might see more states get­ting into the im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment busi­ness. And that’s why we need the fed­eral courts to weigh in.

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