Obama: Arizona's New Law is 'Misguided'

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a controversial bill into law last week, requiring police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country without the proper documentation. President Obama called the new state law misguided and immigrant advocates are vowing to fight it, but others feel it is the first step toward necessary immigration reform. Host Michel Martin talks about the bill and what could happen next with Carmen Mercer, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corp, and Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you've probably heard of the European Union, but what about the African Union? What does it do? What's it for? We'll hear from the U.S. ambassador to the African Union in just a few minutes.

But first, we return to that controversial immigration law just signed in Arizona that we've been telling you about. Protests were held throughout the weekend after Governor Jan Brewer signed a measure that makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. without proper authorization.

The measure calls for local and state law enforcement officials to try and determine an individual's immigration status whenever reasonable suspicion exists that the individual is in the country illegally.

President Obama called the bill misguided, and civil libertarians and immigrant advocates from around the country are vowing to fight it. But the bill passed both houses of the Arizona legislature by comfortable margins, reflecting the support that many in Arizona have for this measure.

Our conversation today reflects that split in public opinion. We're joined by Carmen Mercer, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. They emerged as a political force in 2002 by advocating stricter security along the U.S.-Mexico border and mobilizing volunteers to patrol the border themselves. Also with us is Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network. Her group has been mobilizing protests against the law. And I welcome you both. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CARMEN MERCER (Minuteman Civil Defense Corps): Thanks for having us.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLEN (Executive Director, Border Action Network): Thank you, my pleasure.

MARTIN: Carmen, you first. Spell out first why you support this bill, why you think this is the right measure at the right time.

Ms. MERCER: Well, this is really the bill that we've been working for for so many years. We know that Senator John McCain has failed the people of the United States. And this is a tough bill that was introduced by state legislator Russell Pearce and so many others who put the duty first to protect the people of Arizona and the United States.

And the bill is really written totally in the language of the federal government's immigration bills. I mean, there's nothing different about it. And it's all about enforcing the law. And now, the government will have to enforce the law, whereas before they did not.

In 1996, Bill Clinton tasked all local law enforcement, you know, was enforcing all the federal laws. And that's what's going to happen now because, let's face it, illegal is illegal. And if you break into this country, then you're doing something illegal.

MARTIN: Jennifer, tell us why you oppose the bill.

Ms. ALLEN: Well, I think that even Carmen would agree with us in that our current immigration system just simply doesn't work. It's not in touch with the realities of the United States.

However, the bill that Governor Brewer signed into law on Friday is not the answer. Trying to shift the responsibility from the federal government to the states is simply not an answer. We're sort of creating the opportunity for this hodgepodge quilt of each and every separate state trying to come up with its own means to enforce immigration. That's simply not a workable solution.

But then, also, this legislation is a mandate for racial profiling. It in fact would instruct law enforcement to question people simply based on their appearance and requiring people to show identification that proves that they have legal immigration status in the United States. And unfortunately, again, the realities of immigrants and the realities of the United States are such that you can't just look at somebody and know whether or not they've got the right paperwork in their pocket. So the law then just opens up the door for basic civil rights violations.

MARTIN: Let me ask Carmen about this. Carmen, I have to assume, you know, you've been in the community for a long time, so I have to assume you have friends and neighbors who are Latino.

Ms. MERCER: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: Of course. I'm just wondering how you feel about the possibility of people you care about, your friends, your neighbors being stopped by police because of their appearance, or because somebody forms a reasonable suspicion about them.

Ms. MERCER: Let me tell you first that I'm an immigrant. I was born and raised in a different country. And when I came into this country and I was a resident of the United States, I...

MARTIN: Where were you born?

Ms. MERCER: I was born and raised in Germany. I was - I had a resident card and I had to carry that with me at all times because that was the law and I accepted it. I was told that, somebody asked you who you are and where you're from, and you have to show them that resident card. So, I had - I carried that with me. And this is not about racial profiling. It's not about discrimination. It's about probable cause for national security and public safety issues.

MARTIN: Were you ever stopped?

Ms. MERCER: Yes, I was, by highway patrol and was asked, you know, if I was a, because of my language. I mean, someone can tell that I'm not from this country, that I was probably not born and raised in the United States. You know, when I was stopped and I was asked if I was a citizen, and I had to produce my card. I mean, if I, if I was a citizen, I had to produce my resident card. And I had it with me at all times.

MARTIN: And that didn't bother you?

Ms. MERCER: This is only about the law. This is not about racial profiling. And this is not where it should be going to.

MARTIN: Okay. Let's bring Jennifer back into this. Jennifer, I want to play a clip of something Governor Brewer said on Friday when she signed the law. Here it is.

(Soundbite of recording)

Governor JAN BREWER (Republican, Arizona): As committed as I am to protecting our state from crime associated with illegal immigration, I am equally committed to holding law enforcement accountable should this statute ever be misused to violate an individual's rights. Respect for the rule of law means respect for every law.

MARTIN: Jennifer, what about that? Do you buy that?

Ms. ALLEN: You know, I wish that did give those of us in Arizona concerned with this bill, who are many, the assurances that we need. But in fact, the law was written in such a way that law enforcement are essentially threatened. There's a provision within the bill that says that if law enforcement do not fully focus on immigration enforcement, that they can actually be sued by any citizen of the state of Arizona.

What would happen if there was a DUI checkpoint and law enforcement were assigned to work that checkpoint. And perhaps there's an undocumented immigrant walking down the sidewalk, but these officers are focused on the checkpoint. Somebody witnesses this, they see them ignoring the immigrant down on the sidewalk, that individual, that citizen who witnesses this prioritization of the DUI checkpoint could have grounds to bring charges against the law enforcement agency for failing to fully enforce this law.

MARTIN: Jennifer, can I ask you, though, about a point that Carmen has been making, which is that citizens feel that something has to be done. And that they feel that the federal government has failed to protect the border and to enforce its own laws. And in the absence of that, that the state government has stepped in. What do you say to that?

Ms. ALLEN: We are as equally frustrated about the failures of our federal government to take up and to get the political spine to take on the difficult issue of immigration reform. And if people had a way to be able to enter this country legally, safely, orderly, people would absolutely do it. But right now, our current immigration policy simply doesn't, it doesn't work.

MARTIN: Okay, but what - let me just jump in briefly to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Arizona's new immigration law. We're talking with two people with two views of that law. Carmen Mercer of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network. Carmen supports the new law. Jennifer opposes the new law.

But, Jennifer, what about Carmen's point that something has to happen now, that people have waited long enough?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, you know, I think that it doesn't warrant violating and trying to undermine the US constitution. And I think our frustration doesn't warrant attacking basic civil rights, and doesn't warrant threatening our law enforcement agencies to instead of prioritizing real public safety, prioritizing racial profiling.

So, I mean, we agree that there is a problem and that we absolutely need to address our failing immigration system, but this law is only making matters worse.

MARTIN: And finally, we have a couple minutes left. I want to raise the fact that this bill has evoked, as we've mentioned, a very strong reaction around the country, President Obama calling it misguided. A lot of advocates from around the country are talking about this.

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva is saying that people should boycott the state as a consequence of this. In fact, these were some comments he made to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. I just want to play a short clip, and here it is.

(Soundbite of show, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")

Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): The consequences we can only bring up right now is economic sanctions. We're asking organizations, civic, religious, labor, Latino, organizations of color to refrain from using Arizona as a convention site. To refrain from spending their dollars in the state of Arizona until Arizona turns the clock forward instead of backwards and joins the rest of the union.

MARTIN: Carmen, that's pretty amazing stuff for a congressman to, or to boycott, an economic boycott of his own state. What do you make of that?

Ms. MERCER: That is truly sad. That was really truly a sad statement and rather than protecting the Arizona people, Representative Grijalva is actually protecting illegal aliens.

And let's just, Ms. Allen, I just wanted to mention to you that, you know, Phoenix was declared as the major crime capital probably in the world a year ago. We're not only talking about the migrant workers anymore, we're talking about the criminal aspect that's coming into this country. And that also will be changing now with this new law that's going to be enacted. And let's also face that, you know, we the taxpayers are paying close to $320 billion a year for illegal immigrants, including hospitals, schools, border patrol and such. So, this is what is destructing our country.

And, finally, this bill is really going to go into effect and it's going to force the police to enact the law. And this is going to be good. And certainly there are going to be opponents. But we are hoping that all the other states are going to follow suit.

MARTIN: And finally, Jennifer, I'm going to ask you to respond to that before we let you both go. I just want to clarify, Carmen, that Phoenix was described as the kidnapping capital of the United States, not the crime capital of the United States.

Ms. MERCER: Yes.

MARTIN: Just want to clarify that point. Jennifer, we gave Carmen the first word, I'm going to give you the last word, final thought from you?

Ms. ALLEN: We have seen a massive outpouring of opposition to this legislation both from law enforcement, local officials, Congressman Grijalva and many, many others simply because this state law does not represent Arizonans. It's not going to be good for public safety. It ties the hands of law enforcement to focus on enforcing civil immigration infractions, rather than going after the organized crime, rather than going after smuggling networks.

We need real, workable solutions for Arizona and for the country. But attacking civil rights, requiring law enforcement to racially profile is simply not the path that we should be going down. And I think we will continue to see tremendous outpour or outcry from around the world against this law because it's not focused on immigration. It's focused on actually just wearing down and exhausting our state. Unfortunately, we are all trapped in it.

MARTIN: Okay, we, I hope we'll - this will be the first of many conversations. We'd love to keep in touch with both of you as this issue goes forward. Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network and Carmen Mercer of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps both joined us from their respective homes in Arizona. And I thank you once again for speaking with us. Thank you. Thanks to you both.

Ms. MERCER: Thank you.

Ms. ALLEN: Thank you, thank you, my pleasure.

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