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Arizona Deeply Divided Over Immigration Law Before Supreme Court

Greg Flakus

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over Arizona's controversial state immigration enforcement law. The government maintains that immigration is a federal matter and that states cannot have their own separate laws, whereas defenders of the state law say it was made necessary by the federal government's failure to secure the border with Mexico. The issue has deeply divided the state's citizens.

Every morning, around a dozen men gather in a Phoenix parking lot, hoping local residents will hire them for day jobs in landscaping or construction.

After state law SB1070 was passed two years ago, thousands of illegal immigrants left Arizona, fearing local police would now be able to detain them.

But these men from Mexico say they are not concerned, that they have to work in order to live and they do not want to leave.

Two years ago, there were massive protests on the streets of Phoenix and many Hispanics said the law would allow police to target anyone who looked Mexican,  including legal residents and citizens.

A federal court blocked that part of the law, but the state appealed, and now the nation's highest court will consider whether it is constitutional.

One of the attorneys who helped bring the case against the law is Daniel Ortega, Jr.. “I think what you have here is the potential for people of certain color of skin or people of certain hair or certain accents being subject to greater scrutiny," he said.

But aside from the issue of racial profiling, Ortega says immigration is a federal matter. “When you allow states to enact their own laws, you will have - first of all - a patchwork of many laws, none of which are uniform," he said.

But SB1070's main sponsor, former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, disagrees. “States have inherent constitutional police powers; they have never been preempted from enforcing these laws. The only impediment to enforcing these laws is political," he said.

Pearce also had personal reasons for wanting this law. In 2004, his son Sean, a deputy sheriff, was wounded in a gun battle with a criminal who was in the country illegally. “Who I am mad at, who I am really upset with, is my government. That should not have happened," he said.

Although some Arizona law enforcers spoke out against SB1070, the law was strongly backed by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “We enforce gun laws, we enforce drug laws, we enforce bank robbery laws, so why should this be any different," he said.

Civil Rights activists claim that Arpaio already uses racial profiling, something he denies. He says the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs over the border is the real problem.

On the streets of Phoenix, there are mixed opinions about the law and the man generally known here as Sheriff Joe. “The federal government was supposed to be taking care of this, but they have not been, so now the state has to step in," said one woman.

“I come from Los Angeles, California where the crime rate is, whew, out of control, so I think the Phoenix crime rate is pretty good right now, thanks to Sheriff Joe," said one man.

“Arizona is a very racist state, let's be honest, and I feel they should not be able to have their own law," said a woman with an opposing view.

Although Russell Pearce was removed from office in a recall election last year, he feels vindicated by what other states are now doing. “Thirty-four states are writing legislation modeled after SB1070. Now, many of them are on hold, waiting for the Supreme Court, but Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have passed such legislation," he said.

Pearce thinks the Supreme Court will uphold the law, but opponent Daniel Ortega says that would anger Hispanics here. “If the court decides it will lift the injunction on SB1070 and allow it to be implemented, there will be a very large reaction from the Latino community," he said.

The immigration issue has left this state deeply divided, so no matter how the Supreme Court ultimately rules, many people will be angry and disappointed.

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