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Immigration Ruling Correct, But 'Civil War' Remains

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
July 28, 2010

Immigration Ruling Correct, But 'Civil War' Remains - immigration-ruling-correct-but-civil-war-remains


The U.S. federal court ruling blocking implementation of most of Arizona's controversial new immigration law means the country is now back precisely where it has long been: looking to Washington for a durable solution.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton's decision should come as no surprise to backers or opponents of the law. She found, consistent with current law and court precedent, that states do not have the power to take immigration enforcement into their own hands. Enactment of the Arizona law would have cut deeply into the exclusive federal power to regulate immigration and therefore could not be permitted.

The law's backers are certainly hoping the issue will be taken up by the Supreme Court, but it is hard to imagine a substantively different conclusion. Washington may be doing a poor job of enforcing immigration laws, but for better or worse those laws remain the federal government's to uphold or neglect.

So what now? The country remains in a kind of political civil war over immigration, between those favoring legalization and more humane treatment of illegal migrants, and those calling for deportation and tougher border enforcement. Neither has shown much interest in relenting or cooperating. James Fearon, the Stanford political scientist, has found in his exhaustive research on civil wars that warring factions only stop fighting under one of two circumstances: Either one side is conclusively defeated, or both become persuaded through prolonged fighting that victory is impossible.

A decisive victory seems unlikely for either side. For the enforcement-firsters, the Arizona law was supposed to be the surprise attack that would then topple the dominoes as other states raced to pass copycat laws. The federal court has killed that strategy.

But the amnesty-firsters can hardly be reassured. The election of President Barack Obama, in part due to the surge of Hispanic voter support for Democrats, was supposed to produce a liberal immigration reform bill. Instead, immigration reform is all but off the agenda, and the Obama administration will this year deport more illegal immigrants, roughly four hundred thousand,  than any other administration in U.S. history.

Like the exhausted combatants of a civil war, both sides will need to recognize at some point that they need to deal with each other. Better enforcement--at the border and at the workplace--is a vital part of any lasting solution to the immigration issue. And some legalization program for those who built lives here at a time when immigration laws were scarcely enforced is the only sensible and humane response to the mistakes of the past.

As the court has rightly clarified, that coming together can only happen in one place: the nation's capital. Anything else is just another useless diversion.

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