Following the news that a federal judge has struck down what are essentially the worst parts of Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, there is a sense of vindication and relief on the part of many who have been working for justice in regard to immigration issues. Still, there remains a basic recognition that this ruling is only a temporary piece of the larger puzzle and that SB 1070 itself – while symbolically and politically central to the debate – is likewise merely one aspect of a larger struggle for human rights, dignity and a morally tenable immigration policy in this country. So, while there is cause for celebration, this is not a moment to sit back and rest on one’s laurels – in fact, advocates and activists should be emboldened by the judge’s well-crafted decision and take this as a sign to forge ahead.
Among the key items that the judge struck down are provisions relating to warrantless arrests, required immigration status checks, and the “where are your papers?” aspects of the law that would require people to carry documentation with them at all times. Judge Susan Bolton observed that many of these provisions would increase “the intrusion of police presence into the lives of legally-present aliens (and even United States citizens), who will necessarily be swept up” in their logic. The judge further noted that the requirement to carry one’s papers and present them on demand has been roundly rejected as a legal and moral framework in our society: “The United States asserts and the Court agrees, that ‘the federal government has long rejected a system by which aliens’ papers are routinely demanded and checked.'”
Perhaps, most critically, the judge struck the controversial “reasonable suspicion” aspects of the law that would require “that an officer make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of a person stopped, detained or arrested if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully present in the United States.” The decision further rejects the provision of SB 1070 “requiring verification of the immigration status of any person arrested prior to releasing that person.” What is remarkable is that these conclusions were reached purely on “federal preemption” grounds and without any resort to concerns about “racial profiling” or the like, with the judge concluding in the end that “it is not in the public interest for Arizona to enforce preempted laws.”
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The ruling does leave intact, for now, other problematic provisions regarding harboring or transporting undocumented aliens, and it is important to recall that this is only a temporary injunction that will be followed by fuller hearings and likely appeals. Unquestionably, though, it is an important moment in the immigration debate and it affirms many of the arguments being advanced by people concerned about immigrants’ rights in particular and the totalitarian implications of Arizona’s legislative actions in general. By itself, however, the judge’s decision does not solve the larger issue and it is unlikely to dissuade Arizona’s lawmakers from pursuing their present path.
Thus, the 29th of July will still be a critical date in the history of civil and human rights struggles in America, despite the fact that only a watered-down version of SB 1070 will take effect then. I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he opened his famous “I Have a Dream” speech by reflecting upon “what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” As King recognized, despite the fact that legal decrees had outlawed slavery and overt discrimination in America, the quest for freedom and justice was still an elusive one requiring constant vigilance. And, so, he used his soaring oratory to join with others “to dramatize a shameful condition” and “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
King cautioned against a creeping contentment in which people might view the modest gains made as sufficient to stem the tide of agitation for full recognition as human beings. He spoke directly to those who believed that people “needed to blow off steam and will now be content,” noting that they “will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
In his call for continued pursuit of the aims of justice, emancipation and human dignity, King further cautioned that “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” and that “we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” He gave a particular nod to white allies and advocates, many of whom “have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Before turning to the most famous parts of his speech, in which he elucidated the dream, King directly addressed the question oftentimes raised: “When will you be satisfied?” Bluntly, he stated that people would never be satisfied as long as they remained the victims of “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” as long as their “basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” and as long as their “children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity” by an apartheid system.
King’s dream remains elusive in America today. It was never merely about the rights of one group or the struggle over one particular issue. As he famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and, thus, our destinies as human beings are thoroughly intertwined. It was and still is, about the liberation of humankind as a whole, regardless of categories, borders or differences. This quest for a deep recognition of our shared destiny and common humanity is just as poignant today as it ever was, and, in many respects, we may be closer to realizing it despite all of the obstacles placed in our path.
Like those who have struggled for justice before us, we can affirm (as King did) with heads held high and hearts emboldened that, “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, [we] still have a dream.” Now the work continues to turn that dream into reality.