Spurred by public anger over illegal immigration and the example set by Arizona, states passed more than 100 immigration-related measures during the first half of this year. President Obama condemned that appalling trend, but the administration otherwise took only modest actions to thwart it. It filed suit in Arizona, for instance, but has relied on immigrant and civil rights groups to challenge copycat measures in other states.
Then, this month, the Department of Justice sued to block Alabama from moving ahead with a new law that effectively turns police and civilians into immigration agents. Under the law, police would be required to arrest and jail anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally or face criminal liability and lawsuits. Landlords would be required to verify the immigration status of tenants or risk criminal charges. And public school officials would be forced to check students' immigration status and report it to district officials.
Understandably, the measure has galvanized fierce opposition. Immigrant advocates, civil rights and faith-based groups, and educators have denounced the law, vowing to fight it in and out of court.
State officials contend that the measure doesn't conflict with federal law because it would help immigration officials identify those in the country illegally. That's specious: Alabama can't deport those its law would target. Ultimately, federal agents and an already overburdened immigration court system would be left to contend with the additional cases.
It is true that some programs conflate the duties of local and federal officials in an attempt to control illegal immigration. The federal Secure Communities program, for instance, requires local law enforcement to submit fingerprints of detainees to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security; information regarding the inmates' immigration status is then shared with police and jailers.
But that's a federal mandate imposed on local government. Unsavory as it is for some, it nevertheless preserves the federal government's sole power to enforce immigration law.
The Obama administration can't deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country. It must set priorities. That's hard to do when states pass laws that redirect federal resources. The Department of Homeland Security must be free to focus enforcement efforts on those illegal immigrants who pose a real danger to communities, not those who are merely in this country to work.
State and local authorities have every right to be frustrated with the lack of leadership from Washington on this issue. But the answer is federal immigration reform, not more bad law from the states. As the Obama administration properly moves to block those laws, it also needs to supply an alternative.