Recent governmental efforts to limit undocumented immigrants’ rights echo earlier attempts to do the same, while violating Constitutional guarantees and national values and sending a “dehumanizing” message, according to a prominent civil-rights attorney.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), presented his views to students on Tuesday, May 17 in a talk on “S.B. 1070, Federal Immigration Policy and the National Political Landscape.” It was the final event in the 2010-2011 speaker series, “Contemporary Perspective on Immigration,” sponsored by the Department of Social Welfare.
Over the years, Saenz has led numerous civil-rights cases related to immigrants’ rights, education, employment, and voting rights. These include a successful legal challenge to California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative approved by voters to create a citizenship-screening system in order to prohibit illegal immigrants from using the state’s social services. It was found to be unconstitutional by a federal court.
The 2010 passage of S.B. 1070 by the Arizona state Senate was an “echo” of Proposition 187, said Saenz, who noted that at least six other states are drafting similar bills. S.B. 1070 would require state officials and agencies to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, and aims to identify, prosecute, and deport illegal immigrants. After Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the bill's most controversial provisions.
Saenz said the first way in which S.B. 1070 mirrors Proposition 187 is that it is “clearly unconstitutional.”
Other similarities, he said, are that the Arizona measure would: be very costly to implement; ineffective in deterring further immigration of undocumented workers; force people to continually prove their immigration status; make communicable diseases more of a threat to overall public health by denying health services to some; deny schooling to undocumented immigrants; and threaten public safety by having a chilling effect on immigrants’ cooperation with law enforcement’s efforts to apprehend lawbreakers.
Saenz also criticized the Obama Administration for its Secure Communities program, in which fingerprint information from local arrests is forwarded to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE uses the information to detect and deport a larger number of undocumented immigrants than previously. Some, including Saenz, maintain that this results in many non-criminal, undocumented people being deported.
He proposed an “alternative vision,” in which immigration policy is exclusively set at the federal level and “reflects and respects” federal laws and values, particularly “equal protection, due process, and all the rights in the Bill of Rights.” Such an approach Saenz said, would allow for “individual opportunity and individual attention that are increasingly ignored in immigration policy.”
-- Robin Heffler