The Architect of Arizona's Immigration Law
Former Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce faced sharp questions about the law's intent and effects. REUTERS

Democrats used a hearing Tuesday to denounce the Arizona immigration law the Supreme Court is about to weigh, articulating their party's position on a likely hot issue in the general election.

The highly polarizing bill mandates a state-level crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, including a provision requiring police officers to question and detain people they suspect of being in the country illegally. The Obama administration sued to block the law's implementation, arguing that immigration law is the province of the federal government, not the states.

Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois enlarged on the administration's critique on Tuesday, calling witnesses who testified about the law's detrimental effect on Arizona's industry and Latino population. Schumer said that if the Supreme Court upholds Arizona's law, he would introduce legislation affirming the federal government's sole responsibility to enforce immigration law.

Immigration is not and never has been an area where states are able to exercise independent authority, Schumer said. This makes sense both as a matter of constitutional interpretation and as a matter of sound public policy.

A Democratic state senator from Arizona said the law has perpetuated a climate of fear and division within the state by breeding distrust between Latinos and law enforcement and antagonism between Latinos and others. He argued that the law also has needlessly diverted law enforcement resources.

I would submit to you that Senate Bill 1070's primary objective is to make second-class citizens of U.S. Latinos, to discourage them from voting, going to school, seeking employment and realizing the American dream, Sen. Steve Gallardo said, using the bill's formal name.

Proponents of 1070 said it would stimulate business, but a representative for the organization Arizona Employers For Immigration Reform maintained it has had the opposite effect by leading to cancellations in tourism and convention bookings in Arizona. The spokesman, Todd Lanfried, said that it was Congress' duty to address the issue and called Arizona's solution bad policy and bad law.

We were told SB 1070 would bolster the economy and create jobs, yet history convincingly demonstrates the exact opposite, Lanfried said. Put bluntly, we're being misled by proponents who routinely distort data.

The hearing offered a microcosm of the national debate on immigration, an issue that could play a prominent role in the 2012 election. Arizona's law provided the impetus for a raft of similar new state laws, with legislators arguing that they were addressing illegal immigration because the federal government had failed to do so.

Most of those laws drew challenges from the Department of Justice, pitting Republican-controlled states againt the Obama administration. Schumer placed the blame for Congress' failure to address immigration reform squarely on Republican lawmakers, echoing President Barack Obama's explanation.

To this date our colleagues will not even sit down with us and discuss comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Schumer said. Consequently, states are taking matters into their own hands.

Durbin praised the DREAM Act -- a stalled piece of legislation that would offer a path to citizenship to some young undocumented immigrants -- as an alternative to Arizona's approach. Republican opposition defeated the bill in late 2010, and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to veto it if elected.

Under the Arizona law these young people would be targets for prosecution and incarceration, Durbin said as he read descriptions of young undocumented Arizona residents, all of them high school valedictorians or ambitious young college graduates. That is not consistent with our values as a nation. It is not consistent with our constitutional values.

Tellingly, Gallardo attacked the notion that 1070 would encourage undocumented immigrants to self-deport, using the same phrase Romney invoked when asked to describe his stance on illegal immigration. Self-deportation implies making it difficult enough for immigrants to live and work in the United States that they return to their countries of origin.

The sole supporter of the law at the hearing was former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, a champion of the law who was ousted in a recent recall election. Several of the Republican presidential candidates courted Pearce, who praised Romney for having an immigration policy identical to mine.

SB 1070 removes the political handcuffs from law enforcement. All law enforcement officers have the legal authority and moral obligation to uphold our laws, Pearce said, adding that the invasion of illegal aliens we face today poses a grave threat to public safety.

Schumer grilled Pearce on the law's implications, questioning him on how police officers might identify potential undocumented immigrants.

I find it very demeaning to law enforcement to assume those kinds of things go on, Pearce said in response to the charge that the law encourages racial profiling.