All Eyes on Arizona

Could a similar immigration law be part of Nevada’s future?

Pending court challenges, it’s the law of the land in Arizona that police can check a person’s immigration status in the course of a lawful stop if they have “reasonable suspicion” the person is in this country illegally.

For supporters of the law, it is a long-overdue tool to help law enforcement curb illegal immigration. Detractors see it as an open invitation to racially profile Hispanics in Arizona—and to detain both resident aliens and legal immigrants who don’t have the right paperwork on them.

It’s an open question whether other states, Nevada included, will adopt similar measures.

“Some states may wait to see what the outcomes of the legal challenges will be,” says Jon Feere, legal policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “But if the courts uphold, I suspect many states would follow Arizona’s lead.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states enacted some sort of immigration laws or adopted resolutions in the first quarter of 2010. Nevada was not among them—but its time may be coming. At a recent debate among Republican gubernatorial candidates, challengers Brian Sandoval and Mike Montandon both said they would support legislation in Nevada similar to what passed in Arizona. Gov. Jim Gibbons, who trails Sandoval in the polls, blamed Democrats for failing to get tough on immigration, but he backed off supporting the Arizona law.

Sandoval says it’s a matter of following the law. “In this case, the law is very clear. Racial profiling is illegal and I do not support it. Also, if you are here illegally, you are breaking the law and should be subject to the consequences.”

Montandon says the problem is simply that the federal government isn’t enforcing its own statutes. “It doesn’t really say anything different than federal law,” he says. “Illegal is illegal.”

Does he worry his support will cost him Hispanic voters, especially if he wins the Republican primary in June? “Not at all; I’ve had a lot of Hispanic support,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of people who’ve gone through the process, gotten citizenship legally, who’ve called me and said, ‘We’re very, very supportive of this.’”

Republican Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a candidate for Harry Reid’s Senate seat, called for a special session of the Legislature to tackle immigration, but found no takers. “It’s a mess in Arizona,” Christensen spokesman Ron Futrell says. “We don’t want to see Nevada turn into a similar situation.”

But Montandon says the Nevada Legislature has no interest in pursuing the issue now. He thinks the federal government is likely to take up reform before the state has to.

“The only reason Arizona has taken this step is they don’t feel the federal government is taking enough action,” he says. “With the threat of neighboring states doing this, I don’t believe the federal government will let it slide through November.”

Democratic Assemblyman John Oceguera, the likely successor to Barbara Buckley as Assembly speaker, believes the prospects of someone on the far right introducing a bill during the next session are good. However, he also believes the “possibility of a bill passing is fairly low.”

But even if the feds do nothing, some observers suggest it’s unlikely a similar bill will take root here. For one, as a border state, Arizona simply has greater problems with illegal immigration than Nevada. “We’re not seeing ranchers killed by coyotes in the desert,” says Peter Ashman, chairman of the Nevada chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

And then there are Nevada’s famous libertarian roots. “The idea of any government agency stopping people and saying, ‘Where are your papers?’ is not something that will go over very well here,” says Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

Montandon disagrees. “The fact that we’re not a border state, I don’t believe that’s a big differentiator,” he says. “Just because they’re coming across the border in Arizona doesn’t mean they’re not coming just as fast up to Nevada.” As for the Libertarian streak, Montandon says it’s there but it’s not broad enough to overcome support for tougher immigration laws.

Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t support an Arizona-style law. A rally and march in Las Vegas on May 1, led by Reform Immigration for America outreach coordinator Fernando Romero, the organization’s outreach coordinator, had at least 2,500 participants, though Romero estimates that number at closer

to 5,000. “We’re not relenting,” he says. “We’re continuing this thing.”

Observers are watching and waiting for the inevitable court challenges to the Arizona law. Those challenges may discourage emulators in other states—or it could embolden them. “By that time, we’ll have the better part of a year of experience. We’ll have at least one court ruling,” Montandon says. “We can do it with that much experience and education under our belts.”

Lawmakers are also probably watching the effects the law has on tourism in Arizona, with immigration rights groups contemplating boycotts of the entire state. The American Immigration Lawyers Association canceled a September conference planned for Scottsdale. According to the Associated Press, city employees in San Francisco have been banned from traveling to Arizona. There’s even talk that Major League Baseball will move next season’s All-Star Game from Phoenix.

“We can’t afford that kind of stuff,” Oceguera says. “This is the wrong approach, especially right now. We have visitors from hundreds of countries. To stifle that … doesn’t make sense to me.”

Ironically, the Arizona law has sparked Democratic leaders to action. Senate Majority Leader Reid, facing what is expected to be a tight race this fall to hold onto his Senate seat, already has teamed with other Democratic senators to propose immigration reform. It’s shaping up to be an issue that will become more prominent as the year goes on.

“If anything we hope this is a signal to the president and to Congress the system is broken. It’s putting a lot of stress on states,” AILA spokesman George Tzamaras says. “We need to tackle this as a country.”

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