By JULIA PRESTON
Published: April 24, 2012
WASHINGTON — A day before the Supreme Court was to hear arguments on an Arizona statute that expanded the immigration enforcement powers of local police, the author of the law defended it in a Senate hearing under sharp questioning from Democrats, saying it “removes the political handcuffs from state and local law enforcement.”
Russell Pearce, a Republican who is the former president of the Arizona Senate, ventured into hostile terrain in a hearing called by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, also a Republican, turned down Mr. Schumer’s invitation to advocate for the law at the hearing.
Mr. Pearce and Ms. Brewer are in Washington to attend a Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday in which the justices will consider whether four provisions of the law that have been challenged by the Obama administration are unconstitutional because they encroach on legal terrain reserved for the federal government.
Mr. Pearce, known for his blunt language, said the law, SB 1070, would protect the state’s citizens from “the invasion of illegal aliens we face today,” which he called “one of the greatest threats to our nation.” He said Arizona had acted because “the federal government has decided not to enforce the law,” and he accused the administration of “encouraging further lawbreaking” with its lawsuit.
The Senate hearing served primarily to highlight the political jockeying surrounding the Supreme Court’s deliberations, as Democrats and Republicans try to gauge the possible impact of a ruling by the justices on Latinos, a pivotal group of voters in the presidential contest.
As it appears increasingly possible that the court will uphold at least some of the disputed provisions, Mr. Schumer called the hearing as a showcase for the Democrats’ opposition to the law, which has been intensely unpopular among Latinos nationwide. He announced that if the Supreme Court upheld part or all of Arizona’s statute in its ruling, which is expected in June, he would introduce a bill to expressly prevent states from enacting their own immigration enforcement laws.
Senate staff members said that proposal would have little chance of passage, but it could serve as a rallying point for Democrats to appeal to Latino voters during the summer as the presidential race is fully under way.
None of the Republicans on the subcommittee attended the hearing.
“It is no more than election-year theater,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the senior Republican on the subcommittee. He said that none of the witnesses was an expert on the arcane legal issues that the Supreme Court is considering about the law.
The Arizona law requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest if officials have reason to believe they might be illegal immigrants. The law also makes it a crime under state law for immigrants to fail to register under a federal law and for illegal immigrants to work or to try to find work. It also allows the police to make arrests without warrants if they have probable cause to believe that suspects are deportable under federal law.
Lower courts have blocked the provisions. The administration has argued to the Supreme Court that the law conflicts with federal policies and priorities. Arizona counters that the law complements federal efforts to control immigration and is a routine example of state enforcement of federal laws.
Mr. Pearce, a fierce opponent of illegal immigration, wrote the statute, which passed in 2010. Caught in the uproar the law provoked among some voters, especially Latinos, he lost his Senate seat in a recall election last November.
Persistent questioning from Mr. Schumer put Mr. Pearce on the defensive at times, as the senator bore down on sections of the bill he said could lead the Arizona police to engage in racial profiling. The senator pointed to a training manual showing that the police were instructed to consider how a person was dressed and whether his vehicle was “heavily loaded” in developing a “reasonable suspicion” that he was an illegal immigrant.
The bitterness that the bill has provoked was on display. Dennis DeConcini, who was a Democratic United States senator from Arizona from 1977 to 1995, issued an apology to Latinos for the “harm” of the law. “I am embarrassed for my state,” he said.
Around the country, immigrant advocate organizations were gearing up for protests and vigils. Immigrant groups in Los Angeles held a small rally on Tuesday in front of a federal court building downtown.
In a letter released Tuesday afternoon, religious leaders from a number of faiths called on President Obama to “reassert your authority” to stop states from enacting a patchwork of immigration laws, by working with Congress to pass a broad federal overhaul of the immigration system. Among those signing were Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.