By Dustin Volz
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – House Democrats invoked the name of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin on Tuesday as they filed a challenge to Arizona’s SB 1070, the immigration law to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month.
The friend-of-the-court brief from 68 Democrats – including both from Arizona – argues that SB 1070 is unconstitutional because it pre-empts federal authority. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, led the push for the brief.
But much of the discussion at Tuesday’s news conference centered on Martin, the unarmed black teen killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he was acting in self-defense when he shot the hoodie-wearing youth last month.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said a law like SB 1070 will give police “the right to be judge and jury,” which could have disastrous results “in a nation where we all are different.”
“In one case, a hoodie equals suspicion,” she said. “In another case, it is a tanness of your skin, or the coloration of your skin, or maybe the configuration of your face.”
Supporters of the law called references to Martin an “unfair comparison,” noting that Arizona’s law only applies to police officers – not neighborhood-watch volunteers.
“SB 1070 only allows police officers to question suspected immigration status,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “To invoke the name of that recently killed teenager sensationalizes and emotionalizes a debate that should be logical or rational.”
The debate moves to the Supreme Court on April 25, when the justices will be asked to decide if SB 1070 is an intrusion on federal authority, as the Justice Department claims.
House Democrats said in their brief that it is. They call on the high court to affirm the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision blocking the 2010 law “because the Framers vested authority in Congress, not the several states, to determine how federal immigration law is enforced.”
“Arizona should not be able to usurp Congress’s authority through SB 1070,” the brief said.
At the news conference releasing the brief, Grijalva said SB 1070 would promote an unconstitutional system of “patchwork immigration laws from one state to another” instead of consistent enforcement throughout the country.
“Whether or not it (immigration reform) has been neglected … by Congress still doesn’t give the authority to the state of Arizona, to the state of Alabama, to the state of South Carolina, to set their own policy,” Grijalva said. “This is a federal responsibility.”
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, said the issue in the SB 1070 challenge “is to uphold the supremacy clause of the Constitution.”
Pastor and Grijalva were joined by a handful of other lawmakers, many of whom said SB 1070 will open doors to racial profiling in Arizona.
But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who co-authored SB 1070, noted that the Justice Department has not made racial profiling part of its lawsuit against Arizona, which he said is proof that racial profiling is not an element.
“SB 1070 is about trained police officers making arrests, not untrained civilians taking the law into their own hands,” Kobach said. “As far as the text of SB 1070, it expressly prohibits it being enforced with regard to a person’s race, ethnicity or national origin.”
He said the Democrats’ brief could not point to “a single federal law that SB 1070 conflicts with.”
Kavanagh, an SB 1070 co-sponsor, also dismissed claims that the law is unconstitutional or that it will lead to racial profiling.
He said the bill does not pre-empt but supports federal law, mirroring “stop-and-identify” laws the Supreme Court upheld in the 1960s. And profiling can only occur if police abuse the law, he said.
“It’s a tool and a tool can be used for good or evil, and you have to rely on your police officers to be good,” Kavanagh said. “If they’re not, you punish them.”
Kavanagh called it unfair to bring Martin’s name into the SB 1070 discussion and Kobach called comparisons to Martin’s death “absurd.”
But Grijalva defended the use of the 17-year-old’s death and the racial profiling argument it raises.
“When you begin to profile people based on how they look, and you begin to profile people based on that criteria only, the consequences are not ever good,” he said.