WASHINGTON, D.C. - Rebuffing challenges from a senior U.S. senator, the author of Arizona's immigration law defended both the legality and the wisdom of his measure.
Former state Sen. Russell Pearce testified Tuesday before a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee that Arizona lawmakers chose to act in 2010 after it became clear the federal government was not adequately enforcing federal immigration laws.
He told panel members - at least the two who attended - that SB 1070 does not regulate immigration but instead uses the state's "inherent police power" to regulate those not in the country legally "consistent with the objectives of federal law."
It is not Congress, though, that Pearce needs to convince. The real legal battle unfolds today when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the question of whether four key sections of the law illegally tread into areas reserved for the federal government.
But Tuesday's hearing and today's court arguments clearly are linked. In fact, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs the panel - and purposely scheduled the hearing for just before the Supreme Court arguments - said if the justices do not strike down the Arizona law, he will introduce legislation to spell out clearly that only Congress can adopt immigration restrictions - and that states can act only with "an explicit agreement with the federal government and are being supervised and trained by federal officials."
"States like Arizona and Alabama will no longer be able to get away with saying they are simply 'helping the federal government' to enforce the law when they are really writing their own laws and knowingly deploying untrained officers with a mission of arresting anyone and everyone who might fit the preconceived profile of an illegal immigrant," he said.
Schumer's chances of getting such a bill through a Republican-controlled House are minimal. But the legislation might serve Democratic political goals by forcing GOP lawmakers to take an election-year stance on the issue.
The issue of racial profiling was central to Tuesday's hearing.
Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini said the law puts police in a difficult situation.
"Police officers are trained to profile behavior, not people," he testified.
"This law does the opposite," he said. "If you have brown skin in my state, you're going to be asked to prove your citizenship."
Schumer said it certainly appeared that way.
One section of the law requires police to determine the immigration status of those they have stopped if there is "reasonable suspicion" this person is in this country illegally.
While the statute does not define that, the state Police Officers Standards and Training Board came up with a list of things an officer might consider. And Schumer said one of those things is how someone is dressed.
"What does an illegal immigrant dress like?" he asked.
Pearce said that is just one item in a whole list of what an officer might consider, a list that Pearce said was put together with help from federal immigration officials. Other factors include whether a person is evasive in answering questions or appears particularly nervous.
"It's a compilation of issues that tend to raise the level of suspicion to the level of probable cause" to believe a law has been violated. "It's not any one isolated instance."
State Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said Pearce is half right on the question of what constitutes reasonable suspicion.
"It's not by clothing," he said. "It's by the color of their skin. End of discussion."
Pearce said SB 1070 has nothing to do with race. "Illegal is a crime, not a race," he said.
"It doesn't pick out any nationality," Pearce said. "It just so happened that 95 percent of those who violate our immigration laws come from across that southern border or are Hispanic."
And Pearce said police cannot ignore what may appear out of place, comparing it to three young children playing in the age-restricted community of Sun City at 3 a.m.
"I don't care what color they are - they're going to get stopped and questioned," he said.
DeConcini, who used to be Pima County attorney and now serves on the Arizona Board of Regents, said all the rhetoric does not hide the true targets of the law.
"If anyone tells you it is only the gun- and drug-trafficking criminals they are mistaken," he said.
"SB 1070 targets those with brown skin," he said. "And in my state, those are my neighbors, my friends, successful business associates."
Pearce actually found himself alone in defending the law.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the legislation, rebuffed the invitation by Schumer to explain the measure even though she is at the Capitol this week to attend the high-court hearing. Matthew Benson, her press aide, called it a "publicity stunt."
But the meeting also was ignored by Senate Republicans, with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl saying the timing of it one day before the Supreme Court hearing makes it "strictly political theater." There were clear political elements to the hearing.
Schumer argued for "comprehensive immigration reform" favored by many Democrats that he said includes not only securing the border but addressing the status of those already in this country illegally.
On StarNet: Find more on SB 1070 and other immigration-related news at azstarnet.com/border