In filing its long-awaited suit to block implementation of Arizona's harsh new immigration law, the Justice Department has taken a necessary step to reassert federal authority over immigration enforcement. The Obama administration rightly argues that states cannot be permitted to concoct their own rules and regulations on this issue to suit local needs and local politics, no matter how frustrated they are with the federal government. Allowing states to do so would result in a mishmash of laws handicapping Washington's ability to do its job.
Arizona officials have argued that the state is merely seeking to enforce federal law. But that's not quite right. The new Arizona law, scheduled to take effect July 29, makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to be in Arizona and requires noncitizens who are in the country legally to carry registration papers with them at all times. It also requires police to check the immigration status of people who are stopped for other reasons if they are "reasonably suspected" of being in the country illegally. But, as the administration notes, being an illegal immigrant is not a federal crime: "Congress has affirmatively decided that unlawful presence — standing alone — should not subject an alien to criminal penalties and incarceration." Deportation by the U.S. government, yes; arrest by civil authorities, no.
Furthermore, the United States does not have the wherewithal to deport 11 million people. So federal policy prioritizes the capture, prosecution and deportation of illegal immigrants who threaten national security or who are dangerous or criminal. Arizona's law could force the U.S. government to redirect its efforts to processing untold numbers of illegal immigrants discovered by the police for, say, driving with a broken tail light or jaywalking. What's more, thousands of immigrants are legally present in the U.S. but do not possess federal registration papers, such as those who have applied for asylum, or are applying for special visas as victims of trafficking or a violent crime. Arresting them would violate federal policy.
Immigration foes don't believe the government has any interest in halting illegal immigration, and have responded to U.S. policy with simplistic slogans such as "What part of illegal don't you understand?" and "Illegal is a crime." But in fact, the situation isn't simple at all. Consider, for example, our relationship with Mexico. As the suit points out, migration flow cannot easily be teased out from the web of interconnecting political, socioeconomic and diplomatic concerns. Trade between the two countries averages $1 billion a day; Mexico is the third-largest supplier of oil to the U.S., and together we combat drug and human trafficking. How we handle immigration will affect these and other issues and is therefore best handled by the federal government.
Admittedly, there is a disconnect between the government's bold assertions of federal authority in the complaint and its contradictory, often confusing policy. For example, the government doesn't just deport criminals, or even mostly criminals. In reality, it apprehends and deports thousands of ordinary people, just as Arizona is threatening to do. Given such inconsistencies, it is understandable that, increasingly, states are growing frustrated and taking matters into their own legislatures. On Tuesday, the government made a clear case for control of immigration policy; now it needs to actually implement one.