Suing Arizona isn't enough

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

AS A MATTER of policy, President Obama was right earlier this year to criticize a harsh new immigration law in Arizona as "misguided." On Tuesday, the Justice Department was right to challenge it as a matter of law.

The Arizona legislation, which was signed in April and scheduled to go into effect at the end of this month, requires police officers to check the immigration status of those who are lawfully stopped if there is "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country illegally. The law also makes it a crime for undocumented workers to seek employment and authorizes private citizens to sue state agencies that do not enforce the law.

States are free to determine most laws and policies within their borders -- even if the results are reprehensible and shortsighted. What they cannot do is pass laws that trump or ignore the federal government. The Justice Department suit, filed in Phoenix federal court, correctly calls Arizona on this breach, noting that the Constitution and Congress have vested the federal government -- not the states -- with exclusive authority to establish immigration and nationality laws. The Obama administration argues convincingly that allowing states to set their own policy toward immigration could harm U.S. foreign policy and lead to highly disparate treatment of immigrants from state to state.

It's easy to understand the frustration of people in Arizona who decided to take matters into their own legislative hands. Congress for years has ignored practical realities and succumbed to xenophobia and fear-mongering to derail efforts to craft sensible immigration reforms. It's fine to claim a right to "preempt" state law, but that right comes with a responsibility to do the job. The federal government has improved border security; now it needs to provide a pathway for citizenship for those who entered illegally but have otherwise been productive members of society.

President Obama has promised to take up the challenge of immigration reform, but promising action while suing Arizona isn't good enough. The White House and Congress need to step in to fill the void.

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