By DeWayne Wickham
Though it has been settled law since the Civil War ended that a state cannot secede from the union, Arizona is acting as though it believes it can.
Given this existential loophole, Gov. Jan Brewer has signed a bill that unilaterally gives her state the power to enforce federal immigration law and mandates that people who cross its borders carry an identity card acceptable to Arizona.
The law defines this as an Arizona driver's license, identity card, tribal identification, or any federal, state or local government ID issued after a person proved he's a legal resident of the U.S. Anyone caught in the Grand Canyon State without one of these IDs will be subject to up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. It takes effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.
Arizona's law ostensibly targets “alien(s)” who are “unlawfully present in the United States.” But there's little doubt it will be used disproportionately against Hispanics, who are 30 percent of the state's population. “We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels,” Brewer said at the bill-signing ceremony.
“We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life. We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north,” she said in an apparent reference to the drug war raging in Mexico.
But the law doesn't target drug dealers so much as it stigmatizes Arizona's large Mexican population. “The way it's tailored is very clear. You're looking for brown-skinned individuals. … It's people coming across the border illegally and they're talking mostly about Mexicans,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told Tucson TV station KGUN9.
Keeping people from illegally entering this country isn't a bad idea. But Arizona's law is an “ends justify the means” attempt that enjoys widespread support among its voters. According to a Rasmussen poll, while 53 percent of the state's likely voters think enforcement of the law will potentially violate the civil rights of some U.S. citizens, 70 percent support it anyway. The law is backed by 84 percent of Republicans, 51 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of unaffiliated voters.
There are, fortunately, some pockets of resistance. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, a Democrat, has threatened to file suit against the new law. Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Republican, tried to talk Brewer into vetoing the immigration bill. More than 1,000 Phoenix high school students, who used Twitter and Facebook to organize, walked out of class and marched to the state Capitol to protest the measure a day before Brewer signed it Friday.
But it will be left to the federal government to counter Arizona's immigration witch hunt.
The Obama administration can do this by refusing to take custody of any nonviolent illegal immigrants whom local police charge with “misdemeanor trespassing” — the immigration offense the new law creates. Faced with a $3 billion budget deficit, Brewer is pushing a controversial 1-cent sales tax increase that will be on the state's ballot on May 18.
If illegal immigrants are left in the state's custody, Arizona will have to bear the financial cost of its decision to usurp the federal government's authority to legislate immigration laws.
While such a stance isn't likely to produce a surrender like the one at Appomattox Court House that ended the Civil War, it could force Arizona's governor and lawmakers to end their legislative insurrection.