It’s Just Stupid: How the feds screwed up their lawsuit challenging Arizona’s immigration law

 

Now that we’re all immigration lawyers, we figured we’d better take a gander at the complaint filed yesterday by the feds, seeking to strike down Arizona’s new immigration law.  The feds say Arizona’s law is preempted by federal law and policy, and so must be struck down under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, art. VI, cl. 2.  (You can read the complaint for yourself here.  The text of the law can be found here.)

After reading the complaint in its entirety, we have to say that it’s mostly stupid.

The law was hotly criticized by the Obama administration even before it was enacted back in April, so it’s no surprise that this action was filed.  We’re surprised it took this long to do it.  And we’re even more surprised, given how long it took, that the feds did such a shoddy job of it.

In broad strokes, Arizona wants to deter illegal aliens from sticking around in Arizona.  To that end, among other things, the law:

  • Tells Arizona police they have to verify someone’s lawful presence if, during an otherwise lawful stop, they have reasonable suspicion that the person might be here unlawfully.  §11-1051(B) [referred to as Section 2 in the complaint].
  • Amends existing law, permitting police to make a warrantless arrest if the officer has probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony has occurred, to add that the police can make a warrantless arrest on probable cause to believe the suspect committed an offense for which he could be deported.  §11-1051(E) [in Section 2 of the bill, but perplexingly referred to as Section 6 in the complaint].
  • says Arizona citizens can sue for money damages if any Arizona state or local official or agency “adopts or implements a policy” of not enforcing federal immigration laws to the extent permitted by federal law.  §11-1051(G) [Section 2].
  • makes it a crime of trespassing to be present in Arizona in violation of federal law.  §13-1509(A) [Section 3].
  • amends existing state law against smuggling human beings (§13-2319 [Section 4]) to permit the police to stop a car they reasonably suspect to be in violation of both a traffic law and the already-existing law against smuggling.
  • prohibits illegal aliens from seeking work in the state.  §13-2928(C) [Section 5].
  • makes it illegal for “a person who is in violation of a criminal offense” to transport or harbor illegal aliens.  §13-2929(A) [Section 5].

The general argument the feds make is deliciously ironic: Requiring compliance with federal law would conflict with federal law.  At first glance, it seems like everyone at the DOJ who approved this complaint skipped Logic 101, and listened instead to John Cleese’s logic monologue on the Holy Grail album.  But this is not really the stupid bit.

Their argument is more along the lines of (1) the feds get to determine policy of how and when the feds enforce their own laws; (2) Arizona isn’t telling the feds what to do, but it’s going to be enforcing the same laws more thoroughly; so (3) Arizona is messing with the feds’ policy.  This is one of the stupid bits, because nowhere does Arizona tell the feds what to do or how to do it.

The Complaint commits some intellectual dishonesty, however, to make it seem so anyway.  They repeatedly misquote the Arizona law to say a citizen can sue “any” official or agency for failing to enforce the immigration law.  They make it sound like Arizona citizens could sue federal officials for failing to enforce federal law.  But that’s not at all what is said.  The Arizona law only permits a private cause of action against Arizona officialdom, for failure to enforce that particular section of Arizona law.  It is obvious that the DOJ knew what it was doing in trying to make it sound otherwise, and this lame attempt to deceive the court (and the media) is not what we’d have expected.

We also might point out to the feds that policy is different from law.  The Supremacy Clause only prohibits the states from conflicting with federal law.  There is nothing saying the states have to go along with the policies of whoever happens to be enforcing such law at any given time.  The whole stepping-on-our-policy-toes argument is pretty much irrelevant to this analysis.

The feds also complain that Arizona’s goal — attrition of illegal aliens — is only one of many other goals the feds have.  The feds are more focused on getting rid of criminal or terrorist aliens, and don’t really care so much about the rest, says the complaint.  So Arizona locking up the others would be contrary to federal policy and here we go again.

Paragraph 36 alone makes any number of howlers here.  It says the Arizona law “attempts to second-guess federal policies and re-order federal priorities.”  It tries to “directly regulate immigration.”  It “disrupts the national enforcement regime.”  It attempts to “set state-specific immigration policy.”  It “legislates in an area constitutionally reserved to the federal government.”  It “conflicts with federal immigration laws.”

We’re not particular fans of the Arizona law, but an honest observer would have to admit that it does none of those things.

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The feds make the bizarre contention that Arizona is “supplanting the federal government’s immigration regime with its own.”  Really?  Where?  Nowhere does Arizona create additional barriers to immigration other than those already enacted in federal law.  Nowhere does Arizona reduce the federal barriers to immigration.  Arizona doesn’t restate or redefine the federal laws. Nowhere does the new law “establish the terms and conditions for entry and continued presence” or “regulate the status of aliens.” All the state did was refer to federal law as it already exists.  Arizona’s only saying that, if you violate federal law in Arizona, then it’s a violation of Arizona law, too.  If it’s not a violation of federal law, it can’t be a violation of the Arizona law.

It’s as if the feds are saying the Supremacy Clause means that, if the feds have outlawed certain conduct, the states cannot outlaw the same conduct.  Forget “as if” — that’s precisely what the feds are saying here.  And that’s nonsense.  Outlawing something the feds also outlaw is safe, legal and commonplace.

The complaint repeats several times that the Arizona law would force the feds to change their priorities and shift their focus away from criminals and terrorists.  The law doesn’t tell the feds what to do, however, or how to do it.  So what is the complaint on about?

It finally explains itself in Paragraph 44:  The number of police requests for verification of immigration status is going to increase.  The Department of Homeland Security will have to spend more time answering those requests.  That’s going to take resources away from stuff the feds think is more important.

The legal term for this argument is “horseshit.”  As in most states, Arizona police already had the discretion to seek such verification on a case-by-case basis.  It’s already part of DHS’s job to provide that verification.  The complaint’s argument is that any increase in demand for DHS’s services already being provided — doing more X when they’d rather be doing Y — would interfere with federal priorities, and “such interference with federal priorities, driven by state-imposed burdens on federal resources, constitutes a violation of the Supremacy Clause.”  Again, horseshit.

Also, it’s hard to imagine how even a sizeable burst in demand for such basic data would divert DHS agents from their field work or whatnot.  This is 2010, after all.  We may not have flying cars or interstellar tourism, but we sure as hell have mad database skillz.  Nigh-instantaneous searches of digital records is commonplace and cheap.  The complaint’s argument here just doesn’t jibe with reality.

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To their credit, the feds did try to make a legitimate argument here.  The problem is, it appears to have been written by lawyers who have less than a passing acquaintance with criminal law or civil-rights law.  The Arizona law is a criminal law, not an immigration law, but the feds seem to have put their immigration people on the job.  Mistake.

The legitimate argument is that people are going to wind up getting detained when they haven’t violated the federal law, and they’re going to be stuck there because they don’t happen to be carrying proof of their lawful presence with them at the time.  No matter what legislative fixes they add to prevent it, the truth is that people are going to get hassled because they look Mexican.  There are valid civil-rights problems that could easily arise in the enforcement of the law.

But that’s an issue with the enforcement of the law, not with the law itself.  And anyway, it has nothing to do with the Supremacy Clause.  Sorry.

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The complaint keeps dishing out the stupid.  Starting on paragraph 57, it goes on about the bit letting cops make a warrantless arrest if they believe the suspect committed a deportable offense.

The feds acknowledge that Arizona law already allowed cops to make a warrantless arrest on probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony had occurred.  So the issue is whether there are any deportable offenses that aren’t misdemeanors or felonies.

§13-601 describes only three classifications of offenses: felonies, misdemeanors and petty offenses.  A cursory review of the petty offenses in Arizona law turns up things like feeding wildlife, failure to appear, giving tobacco to a minor, and such.  There may be something Arizona calls a petty offense that could get you deported, but we haven’t found it.

This bit, like the rest of the complaint, is much ado about nothing.  It doesn’t seem like Arizona has given its police any more power to make warrantless arrests than before.

The feds also go on about how this section “makes no exception for aliens whose removability has already been resolved by federal authorities.”  But it beggars reason to suspect that the feds have already vetted whether your crime should result in deportation before you have even been arrested for the crime in the first place.  If any of the DOJ lawyers who wrote the complaint are reading this, deportation tends to come after conviction, not before arrest.  Just saying.

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We could go on, but it’s getting late, and we have actual work to do.  We happen to dislike the Arizona law, though it’s obvious that Arizona is in a tough position.  We don’t like the federal immigration laws any better.  They make as much sense as going in the other direction and just annexing Mexico and giving everyone there the vote.  (Actually, that makes more sense than current U.S. policy.  But then again, our stance on immigration is very close to “the more the merrier.”)

It was a foregone conclusion that the Obama administration was going to challenge this law.  They could have gone with an Equal Protection argument, but they didn’t.  Instead they went with the Supremacy Clause.  And that’s revealing.

It reveals that they didn’t think the civil rights issues were winners.  But more than that, it reveals that the administration thinks its policies to be supreme to those of the states.  That’s not what the Supremacy Clause deals with.  That only deals with actual laws, created by Congress, not policies adopted by a president.  It is an act of dangerous hubris for the administration to make these arguments.  A wise court will shut this case down, if only to protect the country from an increasingly powerful federal executive.

But also because it’s just stupid.

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