The Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday over Arizona’s immigration-crackdown law, but Democrats are already preparing for a potential loss by saying they’ll try to pass legislation stripping states of the power to enact their own immigration rules.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said his legislation would establish federal primacy in immigration by blocking states from taking any action. That would not only preclude state law enforcement efforts like the Arizona model now before the court, but also would overturn a Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld a different Arizona law requiring businesses to verify their workers’ legal status.
“I believe it is simply too damaging to our economy and too dangerous to our democracy to have 50 states doing 50 different things with regard to immigration policy,” said Mr. Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, as he convened a hearing on Arizona’s crackdown law, known as S.B. 1070.
Under that law, which Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed in 2010, police are required to check the legal status of those who they reasonably suspect are in the country illegally. The law also requires legal immigrants to carry their papers with them at all times when in the state.
The Obama administration has sued to block the law, arguing that it interferes with the federal government’s right to set immigration policy.
Courts at both the district and appellate levels agreed with the Obama administration, and the justices announced late last year that they would take the case.
Last year, the justices upheld a 2007 Arizona law requiring all businesses to use E-Verify, the federal government’s electronic system that checks Social Security numbers, to make sure workers are in the country legally. The system is voluntary for most at the federal level, but several states, led by Arizona, have required it for businesses.
In a 5-3 ruling, the court said Congress specifically allowed for states to have a role in licensing businesses based on their compliance with immigration checks.
But Wednesday’s case is more complex.
Backers of S.B. 1070 said it just tries to give local police a hand in enforcing what the federal government already says is illegal.
“It’s modeled after federal law,” former Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, chief sponsor of both S.B. 1070 and the E-Verify law, told Mr. Schumer at his hearing Tuesday.
Mr. Pearce said the need for such restrictions was underscored by the fact that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had contact with police ahead of their attacks but were never questioned about their immigration status, which he said could have led to their detainment.
Mr. Schumer and the Obama administration say S.B. 1070 goes beyond mirroring federal law to instead try to set a state immigration policy — an area where Congress has claimed exclusive jurisdiction.
If the court ends up siding with Arizona, Mr. Schumer said, he will introduce a bill to make it clear that Congress doesn’t want states acting on any level of immigration enforcement.
“States like Arizona and Alabama will no longer be able to get away with saying they’re ‘simply helping the federal government,’ quote, unquote, to enforce the law when they are really writing their own laws and knowingly deploying untrained officers with the mission of arresting anyone and everyone who might fit the preconceived profile of an illegal immigrant,” he said.
His legislation would not only combat a future court ruling but would undo the court’s decision last year upholding states’ mandatory E-Verify laws.
No Republicans attended the hearing.
Sen. Jon Kyl, who represents Arizona and is the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said the hearing seemed designed to pressure the Supreme Court rather than to find out information.
“The timing of the hearing on the eve of the Supreme Court argument, and the fact that the chairman of the committee did not consult with any of us, did not consult with either Sen. [John] McCain or me, for example, about this Arizona law, about what witnesses he would ask from Arizona, for example, suggested to us this was either an attempt to influence the court decision, which would be improper, or simply to create a political sideshow,” Mr. Kyl told reporters.
Mr. Schumer invited Mrs. Brewer to testify, but she declined. The senator said Mr. Pearce was the only one who would agree to come before the panel to defend the law.
He said that indicated a broader reluctance of Republicans to try to work out an immigration agreement with Democrats.
“We don’t have anyone sitting down and saying, ‘Here’s what we want to do to solve this immigration problem,’ ” Mr. Schumer said.
One issue that will not be before the Supreme Court this week is racial profiling under the law. While President Obama and other top administration officials said they feared that S.B. 1070 would lead to profiling, their lawsuit is purely about federal versus state power.
Still, several witnesses said Tuesday, profiling is already happening even though most of the law has been blocked.
“If you have brown skin in my state, you’re going to be asked to prove your citizenship,” said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who represented Arizona for 18 years before giving up his seat, which Mr. Kyl won.
“I’m embarrassed for my state. I apologize for Arizona’s actions,” Mr. DeConcini said.