U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder questioned the constitutionality of Arizona's new immigration law -- before admitting he hadn't read it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just confirmed that the feds plan to sue to stop the law. And Mexico, whose president said Arizona's law "opens a Pandora's box of the worst abuses in the history of humanity," recently filed a brief in U.S. federal court to side with the law's opponents.
Is Arizona's law, scheduled to go into effect next month, an unconstitutional assault on all things moral and decent? How else to describe the over-the-top reaction to -- and the often completely false description of -- the law by people who apparently neither read nor understood it?
A New York Times sports writer, for example, said, "The law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and directs the police to question people about their immigration status and demand to see their documents if there is reason to suspect they are illegal." Federal law already requires that noncitizens carry documents to prove that they are in the country legally. Arizona makes failure to do so a state crime.
What does the Arizona law direct the police to do?
The law says: "For any lawful stop, detention or arrest ... where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien ... a reasonable attempt shall be made ... to determine the immigration status of the person." This means that if you a) are lawfully stopped and b) a cop reasonably believes you may be here illegally, then c) the officer will check into your status. That's a lot of hoops to jump through.
What is a "lawful stop"?
Lawmakers added an explanatory note to the Arizona law. It says, "A lawful stop, detention or arrest must be in the enforcement of any other law." This is important, and it's ignored or mischaracterized by some of the law's critics. The "lawful stop" -- which may trigger a further inquiry about a person's status -- must be for reasons other than a suspicion that one is here illegally.
What constitutes "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal alien?
The Supreme Court has defined "reasonable suspicion" as "common-sense" factors that an officer must be able to explain. It cannot be a mere hunch. A bad cop can abuse any law. And yes, there are gray areas in this one. But officers operate under this kind of imprecision every day.