Arizona law could lead to abuses

Arizona is uniquely burdened with the costly and often deadly consequences of the federal government's failure to stop people from entering the United States illegally or do something about them once they're here. No one can blame the border state for having had enough and trying to act.

For Arizonans, the problem is how state legislators and Gov. Jan Brewer acted in taking this federal responsibility into their own hands and passing a law making illegal status a state crime.

For Kansans, the problem is that an architect of Arizona's new law wants to be Kansas' next secretary of state and, if elected, might help push such misguided legislation here. Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, defended his Arizona handiwork in a New York Times commentary Thursday, saying that "it takes a measured, reasonable step to give Arizona police officers another tool when they come into contact with illegal aliens during their normal law enforcement duties."

Others have been less generous, calling it a "social and racial sin" (pastor Jim Wallis) and calling for boycotts of the state. Faith and immigrant groups around the country are responding with events this weekend, including a march and prayer vigil from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday near Wichita's City Hall.

The law requires that as officers come into "lawful contact" with individuals, they must question and verify immigration status if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that the individuals are in the country illegally.

Though Kobach contends the bill "expressly prohibits racial profiling," what will constitute "reasonable suspicion" in practice is worrisome. The governor's assurance that enforcement must be "without regard to skin color, accent or social status" is no guarantee.

The law is an invitation for ethnic profiling, harassment and discrimination. So it's also an invitation to legal challenge, possibly by the Obama administration.

Even if Kobach is right and courts find it constitutional, the law could lead to unconstitutional abuses of civil rights. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who famously hasn't waited for the state's permission to treat illegal immigration as a state crime, "might systematically misuse the authority," wrote Arizona Republic conservative columnist Robert Robb.

There is concern about what its mandatory new claims on officers' time will mean for other crime fighting. And no matter how the law is enforced, just having it on the books will affect public safety. As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted, whenever someone is afraid to report a crime or workplace exploitation or go to a hospital, others are hurt or put at risk.

Meanwhile, President Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, expressed doubt this week that lawmakers will take up immigration reform this election year. That may be prudent politically, but it won't help states dealing with large numbers of illegal immigrants.

Whether it's a "measured, reasonable step" or a "social and racial sin," Arizona's law may be only the beginning.