Immigration Bill Puts Civil Rights Defenders On Alert

The fight over immigration is heating up again, and Arizona is the focal point. The state's governor has signed a tough new law, which requires local police and sheriff's departments to enforce immigration laws. President Obama has called the law "misguided" and promised that the federal government will monitor the situation for possible civil rights violations.

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A: The Support Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. But the emotions surrounding Arizona's new immigration law are anything but that. President Obama calls it misguided. Immigrant rights activists call it racist. Supporters say it's necessary. And Arizona's governor, who signed the bill into law yesterday afternoon, says it addresses a crisis. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: It's the most strict and sweeping state immigration law in the country. Here are the provisions which stand out: Local police and sheriff's deputies are required to stop anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Whoever they stop must produce ID proving they're legal status. And if they don't, officers have to arrest them.

The law also bans illegal immigrants from soliciting work. And it allows individuals to sue if they think a local law enforcement agency is not enforcing the law. Many of the provisions echo federal law. But Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said she signed the state bill because the feds are not doing enough to enforce them.

JAN BREWER: We in Arizona have been more than patient, waiting for Washington to act. But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.

ROBBINS: Federal policy since the mid-'90s has pushed illegal immigration and drug trafficking from other border states into Arizona. The new state law gained momentum after the murder of an Arizona rancher last month, presumably by a Mexican drug smuggler.

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ROBBINS: Several thousand demonstrators outside the state capitol as the governor signed the bill said the law goes too far.

MICHAEL GO: It's just blatant discrimination. I can't say it any clearer than that.

ROBBINS: Michael Go of Mesa is a U.S. citizen. His girlfriend is from Mexico.

GO: We contribute a lot of money to this state. And for them to, you know, basically turn their back on us and pass this racist bill is basically depriving us of our civil rights.

ROBBINS: Thirty percent of Arizona's population is Hispanic. Estimates are that a quarter of them - a half million people - are in the country illegally. The law allows police to take race into account when they stop people. So even some of those here legally say they fear being stopped because of the color of their skin.

Before the governor signed the bill, President Obama said he's concerned the Arizona law might violate people's rights.

BARACK OBAMA: In fact, I've instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation.

ROBBINS: To address those concerns, Governor Brewer said she is signing an executive order to train police in how to determine who may or may not be an illegal immigrant.

BREWER: Racial profiling is illegal. It will not be tolerated in America and it certainly will not be tolerated in Arizona. And we're going to address that in my executive order.

ROBBINS: Brewer said she's also open to amending the bill if problems come up. If the bill takes effect, it will be in roughly three months. I say if because a number of organizations have said they'll file requests for court injunctions - civil rights organizations, immigration rights organizations, possibly even the Phoenix City Council. The main argument is that only the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration law.

Others are calling for a boycott of Arizona. And yesterday, President Obama admitted the government has to do more to address illegal immigration.

OBAMA: If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.

ROBBINS: Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, but Republicans dominate Arizona state politics. With an election coming up, including a Republican primary in August, politicians are bolstering their conservative credentials by tackling a major concern of their constituents. And a recent poll concluded that a majority of likely voters in Arizona support the new immigration law.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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