Senate Democrats Blast Arizona Immigration Law

On the eve of oral arguments in an important immigration case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue came to Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer convened a Senate hearing on the controversial Arizona law.

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Tomorrow in the Supreme Court, a major immigration case. The justices will hear arguments on the constitutionality of Arizona's tough immigration law. Today, Democrats in the Senate held a hearing on the same topic.

NPR's Tamara Keith explores why.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There are 11 members of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. Only two of them showed up, both Democrats.

Arizona Republican Jon Kyl was among those who skipped it.

SENATOR JON KYLE: This was either an attempt to influence the court decision, which would be improper, or simply to create a political sideshow.

KEITH: A sideshow that would allow Democrats to bolster their standing with Latino voters at a time Republicans are trying to close the gap.

And the witness list - it was tilted against Arizona's law, too. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer is chairman of the Senate subcommittee. He says he invited lots of elected officials from Arizona, but all of them declined.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: If you believe in the law, if you voted for the law, if you're enforcing the law, why can't you come and defend it?

KEITH: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is in Washington today, ahead of tomorrow's Supreme Court hearings. And she was among those who turned down the invitation, saying it was a political stunt.

The only witness who came to defend the law was the author of the bill, former State Senator Russell Pearce, who was ousted from office last year in a recall vote. He says his son, a deputy sheriff, was wounded in a gun battle with illegal aliens.

RUSSELL PEARCE: I've seen the real cost and damage caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this country.

KEITH: Under grilling from the two senators in attendance, Pearce insisted that Arizona was simply enforcing federal immigration law because the federal government was failing to do it.

The other three witnesses raised concerns, that the law hurt the Arizona economy, that it made victims reluctant to report the crimes to police, that it led to racial profiling.

Former U.S. senator from Arizona Dennis DeConcini made it clear he is no fan of the law.

DENNIS DECONCINI: I'm embarrassed for my state. I apologize for Arizona's actions towards our Latino community - legal or illegal. This is not a way to treat people.

KEITH: Pearce, the man behind the law, wasn't buying any of it.

PEARCE: I'm a little disappointed when folks talk about embarrassed for the state of Arizona. Two-to-one across this country we have a national crisis, and yet everyone wants to ignore that - the cost, the damage, the crime.

KEITH: And therein lies one area of agreement that emerged from the hearing, that there is a problem with the nation's immigration system just crying out for a comprehensive fix.

Senator Schumer pointed to the empty seats around him as a sign of how hard that could be.

SCHUMER: We need people to sit down, people on both sides of the aisle in a bipartisan way and solve this problem. We have been unable to find negotiating partners.

KEITH: But instead of reaching out, Schumer announced at the hearing that he wants to force a vote on a bill to prevent states like Arizona and others from enacting their own immigration enforcement laws.

SCHUMER: States like Arizona and Alabama will no longer be able to get away with saying they're simply helping the federal government, quote-unquote, to enforce the law when they are really writing their own laws.

KEITH: And that's a move that would force members from both sides of the aisle to take a stand on the highly charged issue of illegal immigration, ahead of the November election.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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