WASHINGTON – Former state Sen. Russell Pearce defended his SB 1070 immigration law before a highly partisan Senate subcommittee Tuesday on the eve of a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the law.
Pearce was the only defender in a room full of Democratic opponents: Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl boycotted the hearing, calling it “political theater,” and Gov. Jan Brewer rejected a request to appear.
Pearce said SB 1070 does not racially profile Latinos and is necessary to stop illegal immigration, because federal authorities have failed to enforce immigration laws.
But former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini called the bill “ill-founded, mean-spirited and divisive,” and said he was embarrassed for his state because of it.
“Instead of trying to find legitimate solutions to the problem of people coming into our country illegally, we have let rhetoric and political advantage cloud sound judgment,” said DeConcini, a three-term Democratic senator from Arizona.
Pearce, a Mesa Republican who sponsored SB 1070, rejected charges that the law pre-empts federal authority, saying it simply “mirrors federal objectives.”
“This common-sense law is fully within the authority of Arizona – and any other state – as it protects Arizona citizens from the effects of illegal immigration and upholds the rule of law,” Pearce said.
The 2010 law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally and requires law enforcement officials check immigration status during routine stops if there is reasonable suspicion an individual is here illegally. Similar laws have since passed in a handful of states, including Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
But a federal judge blocked the bill’s most controversial sections, a decision that will be reviewed Wednesday by the Supreme Court.
Kyl, in announcing his decision to skip the hearing, noted its timing “one day ahead of the Supreme Court’s review of the law suggests that its purpose is either to influence the court’s decision or to garner publicity.”
Pearce spent almost two hours parrying attacks on SB 1070 from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the only two senators on the 11-member Judiciary subcommittee to attend the hearing.
The hearing became most contentious when Schumer suggested that SB 1070 would lead to racial profiling, asking Pearce repeatedly whether someone’s clothing can inform a police officer of the person’s immigration status.
“What does an illegal immigrant dress like?” Schumer asked.
Pearce responded that wardrobe is one of many factors an officer can take into account to gauge whether someone is suspicious.
“It’s a compilation of issues that tend to raise the level of suspicion to the level of probable cause, not any one isolated incident,” Pearce said. “This is just a list of things that lead you to ask questions.”
Schumer shot back: “Sometimes questions are a dangerous thing because they lead to profiling.”
Pearce was flanked at the hearing by DeConcini, state Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, and Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.
Gallardo said SB 1070 has given Arizona a negative reputation and that the law “has unfairly subjected Latino citizens to racial profiling and harassment.” He said the only way to remove the “black cloud over Arizona” is to repeal the law.
Schumer announced Tuesday that if the Supreme Court does not overturn SB 1070 he will introduce legislation this summer seeking to reject the law.
Schumer expressed agitation at Republicans who skipped the hearing, but thanked Pearce for his appearance.
“You’ve had the courage and integrity to come here and defend your views and that’s very much appreciated,” Schumer told Pearce.
Pearce also said he was disappointed by Kyl and Brewer’s absence.
DeConcini pointed to the increase of Border Patrol agents and a sharp drop in illegal immigrant apprehensions as evidence the federal government is working to secure the border. But facts and numbers are being lost in political rhetoric, he said, and he holds little hope that a high court ruling can change Arizona’s current political climate.
“Regardless of how the Supreme Court holds, discrimination is happening. I’ve seen it,” DeConcini said. “I’m a native son and Arizona is filled with good people, and then we have some politicians that just go off the deep end.”