Arizona Police Prep for Immigration Crackdown

| Wed Jul. 7, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

The Obama administration finally filed its long-anticipated lawsuit against Arizona’s harsh immigration law on Tuesday. But the suit won’t stop the law from going into effect as scheduled on July 29, and Arizona officials are already preparing for the crackdown. Last week, the state released the guidelines—including a 90-minute DVD—that will be used to train 15,000 law enforcement officers to enforce the law.

The video repeatedly emphasizes that racial profiling is against the law and should not be used to determine whether someone is an illegal immigrant. But the state also says that police officers can use dress, the ability to speak English, and presence in a place where “unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate looking for work” as acceptable grounds for reasonable suspicion. (Under the law, police must have another grounds for stopping someone first—e.g., if they suspect the person has violated a state or local ordinance—before they can inquire about immigration status.)

Pro-immigration activists, however, contest that such guidelines still effectively legitimize racial profiling. "I don't believe the police will approach white people and ask them for their papers because of the way they're dressed,” one Latino activist told Gannett News Service. And even state officials admit in the DVD that they’re not sure how all the parts of the law are supposed to be enforced. “[T]he law allows any legal resident of Arizona to sue if a local agency has a ‘policy’ against enforcing federal immigration laws, but the video warns that no one knows what that means,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “The provision puts police in an awkward situation, [a state official] says in the video, because they will be accused of racial profiling for enforcing the law and risk a lawsuit if they don't.”

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But while concerns about racial profiling have been at the heart of the controversy—as well as many of the lawsuits that civil rights groups have filed against the law—they’re not the focus of the Obama administration’s own lawsuit. The Justice Department is suing Arizona on the grounds of violating the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government preeminent authority over immigration. In doing so, DOJ has forgone opposing the law on the basis that it violates civil rights under the 14th Amendment—making the suit effectively “race-neutral,” as Adam Serwer points out. It also makes the suit more far-reaching: if DOJ prevails in the Arizona suit, it could also challenge the laws that other states and towns have adopted, on the grounds that the federal government can’t be preempted by local and state laws when it comes to immigration.

Since racial tensions have fueled the controversy, however, concerns about racial profiling will likely remain at the forefront of the debate as the Arizona law goes into effect. “The entire country is watching to see how Arizona and how Arizona law enforcement responds,” Lyle Mann, head of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, says in the training DVD. "This state and each of you will be thrust onto the national stage, and history will be made."