This week the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The case before the court focuses on a few provisions of this law, but the principle at stake is whether the federal government holds full authority to enact and implement immigration law in this country.
The implications are huge. How the court responds could fundamentally alter how our country governs immigration. Instead of one federal law that applies to all the states, a patchwork of 50 state immigration policies could suddenly define our nation’s immigration system.
In a friend of the court brief submitted in the case, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that the federal government is in the best position to balance competing goals of enforcing of immigration laws while upholding long-held American values such as family unity and human dignity. These values help define America as a nation. They should not be taken for granted.
State laws such as that in Arizona do not always honor these closely held values, long enshrined in immigration law. Indeed, these laws threaten to remove such humanitarian considerations from our immigration system altogether. This would be a tragedy for the individuals subject to these laws, but also for all Americans.
As a pastor, I am less inclined to speak to the legal principles involved in the case, but I am deeply concerned about the human consequences if Arizona’s law is upheld.
First, it would create a society that treats foreign–born men and women not as contributors to our American life, but as threats. The Arizona statute permits law enforcement officials to detain a person pursuant to a legal stop if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is undocumented and the person cannot prove otherwise. This encourages a kind of racial “profiling” that is inconsistent with traditional American respect for human dignity and equality before the law. It opens every ethnic minority person to being targeted under even the slightest pretext — such as having a broken tail light. There is no way to tell from the color of a person’s skin whether or not he or she is “documented.” So inevitably, a law like this will cause confusion and injustices not only for undocumented persons, but for U.S. citizens and “legal” immigrants.
Second, upholding the Arizona law would accelerate a disturbing anti-family tendency that we find in our nation’s current enforcement of immigration laws. In recent years, we have witnessed an alarming rise in the number of undocumented parents being seized and forcibly removed and separated from their U.S.-citizen children. Arizona-type laws will only increase the circumstances of a child waiting at home for a parent or parents to care for them, only to never have them arrive. We must retain a deep concern for innocent children and family unity in our immigration policy. If we don’t, we do more than disregard the futures of the 4 million innocent U.S. citizens children living with an undocumented parent or parents. To lose our abiding care for children and families in our law enforcement would signal a deep and unhealthy change in our American character.
The Arizona law gives state and local law enforcement officials full sway to act as “immigration agents.” This is an unprecedented power, and changes the relationship between the government and our immigrant communities. As many law enforcement personnel would testify, trust between law enforcement and a community is essential to public safety. It is hard to create that trust when members of a community are always a potential target of criminal profiling.
Most disturbing, upholding Arizona’s law would change our American identity as a welcoming nation, which has served us well since our inception. The goals of Arizona-type laws are to discourage immigrants from coming and to encourage those who are here to leave. We must carefully consider whether that is the signal we want to send to the world, given that immigrants and their ancestors—all of us—built this country and will continue to renew it.
Of course, we should not have arrived at this precipitous moment. Congress and the administration already should have reformed our failed immigration system. I hope this case will serve as a wake-up call to them.
The Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States will mark a critical juncture in our nation’s immigration history. We will either maintain the direction which has made us a great nation or embark on a darker course that weakens and divides us. Let’s pray we choose the right path.
The writer is the archbishop of Los Angeles and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.