/ 8 July 2010

The fear of the other

Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2162 into law on April 23, the toughest US Act on illegal immigration to date. Last Tuesday, Barack Obama’s administration took legal action to stop the law.

According to the Act, failure to carry immigration documents will be considered as a crime. Police demands for documents in public spaces are common practice, in South Africa, among other countries. It is an open secret that those checks are often based on widely or personally held prejudices.

“This is not uniquely an American issue,” Brooks Spector, US affairs analyst and contributing editor of the Daily Maverick told the Mail & Guardian. “We see it here [in South Africa], we see it in the UK, and we see it in Europe.”

Arizona would be the first US state to require officers to determine people’s immigration status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be illegal immigrants. Currently, law officers may run a check on immigration status of those they stop or arrest. With the new law, they would be required to check.

There are two kinds of consequences the US will face if Arizona’s immigration law goes into effect at the end of the month.

One immediate consequence would directly affect Hispanic-Americans. “The law will inevitably lead to racial profiling and discrimination based on appearance, ethnicity and accent, with particular impact on Latinos,” Lucas Guttentag, immigrants’ rights project director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told the M&G.

ACLU, along with a coalition of leading rights groups, filed the lawsuit in May challenging the constitutionality of Arizona’s law.

Spector confirmed that even though governor Brewer issued an executive order to “enforce the new rules without racial profiling”, it would be almost impossible to avoid.

Another immediate consequence is a deterioration of the US’s global image as a human rights advocate. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that favourable views of the US among Mexicans have decreased from 62% to 44% since the law was enacted.

Diplomatic relations are already beginning to suffer as a consequence of the law. By a system of rotation, Brewer happens to be the host of this year’s Border Governors Conference, the 28th annual gathering of US and Mexican border governors. All six Mexican governors have announced their decision recently to boycott the conference, which resulted in the first preliminary cancellation of the event in almost 30 years.

The other kind of consequence, less immediate and mostly considered by legal scholars, is the effect the law could have on the American political and legal system: The law would intrude on the federal immigration authority. According to the American Constitution, the federal government has “preeminent authority” to regulate immigration matters.

“The Constitution and the federal immigration laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country,” the lawsuit filed by the department of justice states.

What are the chances of Arizona’s immigration law going into effect on July 29? Guttentag is optimistic about blocking the law. “The Obama administration’s lawsuit underscores the strength of our suit,” he said. “We are confident we will prevail in our legal challenge.”

The hearing on ACLU’s preliminary injunction to prohibit the law from going into effect is scheduled for July 22.

“Broadly speaking, of course, federal law trumps state law,” Spector said, adding that he strongly suspected the law would be overturned in court but that the issue of a broader immigration reform would remain.