Editorial: Heed Arizona's message

Posted: August 01, 2010

A judge's decision to invalidate the worst elements of Arizona's odious attempt to usurp federal authority over immigration doesn't mean the Obama administration has time to savor the moment.

That Arizona and other states feel they must fill the void left by inadequate enforcement of federal immigration laws should have motivated the president long before now to make immigration reform a higher priority.

He instead spent tremendous political capital on watered-down, but welcome, health-care reform, and - in large part due to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill - has failed to get traction on climate change. With midterm congressional elections on the horizon, President Obama might prefer to keep immigration on the down-low, but he shouldn't.

As misguided as Arizona was in passing laws that would intrude on the federal government's constitutional authority, its efforts were understandable. Indeed, nearly 20 states have been seriously considering similar legislation, so that local police can interrogate persons supposedly detained for other reasons about their immigration status.

The ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton tells states not to go that route. She said any law requiring suspects to show their immigration papers on demand places "an unacceptable burden on lawfully present aliens." In other words, legal residents shouldn't have to take one for the team by giving up their constitutional rights.

It is interesting that Bolton's order left intact Arizona's ban on "sanctuary cities," municipalities with policies that protect illegal residents. The ruling also didn't disturb Arizona's prohibition against hiring day laborers who crossed the border illegally.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has already appealed Bolton's ruling, and says she will take it to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. But you can tie her stance to her reelection campaign, with polls favoring tougher treatment of illegal immigrants. No doubt, similar polling nationally in this election year helped prompt 81 members of Congress to file an amicus brief supporting the Arizona law.

Instead of pandering for votes, lawmakers ought to listen to folks like Phoenix Vice Mayor Michael Nowakowski. "Polls are for politicians before elections, they're not for civil rights," he said. Imagine how civil rights legislation would have fared had Congress let polls lead it back in the 1960s.

Today's Congress and president need to show the same courage as the nation's leaders 40 years ago and do what is right, which may not be what's popular. They need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would assure the states that they don't have to try to do the federal government's job for it.

Effective reform must include credible policies that would actually reduce the numbers of people entering the country illegally. That means tougher sanctions against the companies that turn a blind eye to the legal status of workers who are willing to work longer hours for less pay in physically exhausting jobs.

Effective reform also must include a path to legal residency and possible citizenship for the millions of illegals in this country who are working hard, raising families, abiding all other laws, and positively contributing to their communities. How they got here was wrong, but this country was built on redemption.

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