Leading article: A country of immigrants turns upon itself

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:43

The ruling this week by a US federal judge that blocks the most objectionable parts of Arizona's new immigration law is a victory for the Obama administration, for the proper functioning of the US constitution and for elementary justice.

Clearly the provisions in the original law allowing police to question people they had a "reasonable suspicion" might be illegal immigrants, and requiring them to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws, were a violation of individual liberties. Not only would these powers be an invitation to de facto racial profiling, they would also create a climate of fear between immigrants, legal as well as illegal, and other sections of the population.

America, like many European countries, has a real and growing problem of immigration, obviously most keenly felt by southern border regions like Arizona. But the solution does not lie in a mishmash of separate and conflicting laws passed by individual states. As the Justice Department argued in its lawsuit against Arizona's measure, immigration policy is a federal responsibility, to be addressed by a common federal law. The decision by Judge Susan Bolton is only an early shot in a legal fight that is likely to last for years. Arizona's governor has vowed to carry the struggle to the Supreme Court – which, given its current conservative bent, will almost certainly agree to hear the case. And then who knows? In the meantime, the original law enjoys the support of most Republicans and a clear majority of ordinary Americans. Such is the dismal spectacle of a country of immigrants turning upon itself.

How much better if Congress used those years to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill that both meets the legitimate concerns of Arizona, and sets out an orderly path to citizenship to those who are already long there. But the omens are not good. Three years ago, sensible legislation backed by then President George Bush came to grief. Since then, the climate on Capitol Hill has become even more partisan, while recession has made illegal immigrants natural scapegoats for rising unemployment. Demagoguery may score political points. But it will not make the problem go away.

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