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Border & Immigration

San Diegans React To Arizona Immigration Law

Opponents of Arizona's new immigration enforcement law protest outside the state capitol building on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.
John Moore
Opponents of Arizona's new immigration enforcement law protest outside the state capitol building on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.
San Diegans React To Arizona Immigration Law
What impact will Arizona's new immigration law have on California? We'll talk with Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and the ACLU's Kevin Keenan.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A new law in Arizona has just turned the issue of immigration red hot. Protests and boycotts are being called, lawsuits have been threatened against the new state law that requires police in Arizona to question people if they suspect they're in the United States illegally, and it requires legal immigrants to carry their alien registration papers at all times. The law, signed by Arizona's Republican governor, is being praised by some lawmakers. Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of the 52nd District here in San Diego is my guest. And good morning, Congressman Hunter.

DUNCAN HUNTER (Representative, 52nd District): Good morning. How are you doing?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing just great. Thank you for being on the show today.

HUNTER: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think of Arizona’s new immigration law?

HUNTER: I think, unfortunately, it’s something that they had to do because of the lack of federal enforcement and oversight on the border. I don’t think they had a choice really. They were kind of driven into a corner by lack of enforcement from the federal government, which is its job is to protect America’s sovereignty in the border, so kind of something that they had to do.

CAVANAUGH: What concerns, if any, do you have about this law?

HUNTER: Well, I’m concerned, one, I think the enforcement is more important, meaning on the border itself. I think we got to have – you got to have border infrastructure, you have to stop the crime where it takes place, which is on the border itself. I think that should be priority number one. Two, I think that enforcement in businesses should be priority number two, and then we can deal with the illegal aliens that we have in this country. But before we do that, we have to stop and make sure that you don’t have more illegal aliens coming across, you don’t have drug runners coming across, rapists, murderers, terrorists. You have to secure the borders first. And I think that that’s – that, I think, should be the first step, like it is in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now since illegal immigration, since the monitoring of illegal immigration has always been thought of as the exclusive domain of the federal government, isn’t this Arizona law unconstitutional?

HUNTER: No, no, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says a state can’t protect its own citizens. No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, the opposite. I think that, you know, they – the Constitution talks about powers that are not specifically given to the federal government or left to the states, and I would assume one of those is protecting its citizens. So this is a long, long way from unconstitutional. In fact, it’s probably one of the more constitutional laws that states have passed.

CAVANAUGH: So in a practical aspect of this, though, are you – do you have any concerns that perhaps more people who are in the country illegally will, therefore, come to California because of Arizona’s law?

HUNTER: No, I don’t think so.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, why not?

HUNTER: I just – I just don’t think that they are for the same reason that – I mean, there’s – there’s no reason to think that people are going to get up and leave, especially legal residents and especially legally here immigrants that have green cards and are naturalized citizens or whatever, that they’re going to stay in Arizona. They’re not going to pack up their families and move to a new state because they have nothing to fear because they’re here legally.

CAVANAUGH: Now how would you feel about California adopting a similar law?

HUNTER: I think it’s a good thing for California to adopt a similar law. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. And if you look at this law that Arizona signed, that Arizona put into place, police – all the sheriffs are behind it, the police chiefs are behind it, it’s really going to cut down on crime in Arizona. And folks can’t just walk up to people and ask them for their documents. They have to engage them in some other lawful way. There has to be some kind of lawful engagement like being pulled over for speeding, robbing a bank, whatever, then they can proceed down a linear line of questioning and one of those questions can be are you a legal citizen.

CAVANAUGH: I think there’s a question as to whether or not that exactly is the law. The way I’ve seen it, it requires police in Arizona to question people if they suspect they’re in the United States illegally, not if they’ve broken another law.

HUNTER: No. No, that isn’t true. They have to be engaged lawfully with them. The police can’t just go out and ask people what their citizenship is walking down the street, they have to engage lawfully with them in some other way.

CAVANAUGH: I think there are still a lot of questions about this. Let me move on to a forum that you spoke at recently, that you said that you think U.S. born children of illegal immigrants who are now accepted as U.S. citizens, because they were born in America, should be deported.

HUNTER: Yeah, let me…

CAVANAUGH: I wonder…

HUNTER: I’ll be happy to clarify for you.


HUNTER: If you have a family here illegally…


HUNTER: …and they have kids that are under 18 years old, you obviously can’t send the parents home and leave the three-year-old here.


HUNTER: You’re going to have to send the whole family home, and that’s basically it. And the way that the Constitution is interpreted right now is that that child is a legal citizen but the parents need to go home and that kid’s going to have to go with them. And when that kid turns 18 years old, he or she can come back across into the U.S. as a citizen and I disagree with that part of it, too, though, frankly. I think it should take more than just being born here in the U.S. to become a citizen. We’re one of the very few countries that does that, one of a handful if not the only one. It should require a naturalization process for anybody who wants to become a U.S. citizen to become a U.S. citizen. It should take more nowadays than just walking across the border to become a citizen.

CAVANAUGH: There are legislators who, of course, feel very strongly about illegal immigration who are saying that, indeed, that law should be changed. That just because you’re born here doesn’t mean you should automatically become a U.S. citizen. Do you think that that change can actually be done by legislation or would you support a constitutional amendment? Would you support legislation towards that end?

HUNTER: We – we’re already on legislation. There’s about 90 Republican co-sponsors on a bill that does exactly that. It makes exceptions, though, for people that – for kids that have one legal parent or if one parent is in the military. It makes exceptions for those but in all other cases, you have to go through the naturalization process to become a citizen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Congressman Hunter, despite your personal feelings, your strong personal feelings about the evils of illegal immigration…

HUNTER: I wouldn’t call them strong personal feelings about the evils of illegal immigration.


HUNTER: I think I have some pretty pragmatic, valued views on immigration. I think that…

CAVANAUGH: Fair enough.

HUNTER: …there’s quite a few things that California faces and this nation faces that is a – is directly attributable to illegal immigration. One of those things is deficits, one of those things is crime, one of those things is overcrowded hospitals, drug – rampant drug smuggling. So there’s a lot of things that are bad about illegal immigration but there’s great things that are about legal immigration. My wife is a legal immigrant. Her family’s a legal immigrant. She wasn’t born in the U.S. So America’s based on immigration but it’s based on doing – on immigrating here the right way, lawfully. That’s what it’s all about. We’re a nation of laws.

CAVANAUGH: Congressman Hunter, I didn’t mean to mischaracterize.


CAVANAUGH: I think you’ve said it very clearly. My only question is, staying on that pragmatic route, do you think Arizona’s new immigration law will become a political liability for Republicans in November’s election and down the line?

HUNTER: No, I don’t think so at all. I think people like to see laws enforced, and it isn’t like we – It’s called illegal immigration for a reason. It’s already illegal. What Arizona did is give its police and its sheriffs the ability to enforce existing immigration law. So this is nothing new, so we’re actually finally saying, hey, we’ve had laws on the books for decades about illegal immigration. We’re actually going to enforce those now. And the fact that that’s causing outrage, that we’re now going to enforce existing law, to me, is pretty flabbergasting. I mean, because if you already have the laws, the laws are in place now, and the fact that we’re now going to enforce them causes riots, that’s pretty crazy.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us, Congressman Hunter.

HUNTER: Absolutely. Great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: That was Congressman Duncan Hunter of the 52nd District here in San Diego. After the break, we’ll get reaction from Kevin Keenan of the ACLU. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the new law in Arizona aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration by requiring police in that state to question people if they suspect they’re in the United States illegally. Just had a conversation with Congressman Duncan Hunter, who supports the new law, and now I’d like to welcome my guest. Kevin Keenan is executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. Kevin, welcome.

KEVIN KEENAN (Executive Director, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think of the new immigration law in Arizona?

KEENAN: We’re very concerned. It’s – represents a new degree of extremism in addressing immigration but, as importantly, this isn’t just about immigrants, it’s about anyone who could be reasonably suspected by a police officer of appearing foreign. And this is a striking violation of American fundamental values and it puts at risk countless citizens and our neighbors and friends, whether you live in Arizona or you’re traveling through Arizona.

CAVANAUGH: Now the way Congressman Hunter characterized the law, if I understand him correctly, is that ‘are you in the country illegally’ is one of a series of questions a police officer might ask someone who was stopped for another legal reason. But is that actually what the law says?

KEENAN: That’s inaccurate. What you’re seeing now is politicians backing off of what the law really says because of the reaction. Keep in mind that Jeb Bush has said there are civil liberties problems—he actually used the word civil liberties, it was great. Conservative Tea Party-backed senate candidate Marco Rubio in Florida has problems with it. Tom Tancredo has problems with it. It’s disturbing that Mr. Hunter doesn’t recognize the constitutional violations and that this, in fact, puts at risk his own constituents and citizens. It doesn’t protect them unless his conception of who the citizens here are is different than the reality.

CAVANAUGH: You must love it when any politician says ‘civil liberties.’

KEENAN: That’s right. We’re glad they’re aware of the term.

CAVANAUGH: Kevin Keenan is executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. I’m wondering, though, one of the aspects of this new Arizona immigration law, as I understand it, is that the penalties for not carrying around your papers, so to speak, it can be harsher than just simply being busted by the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol just basically deports people but here you can actually be thrown in jail.

KEENAN: Right, and that’s where this is going to be a problem constitutionally, where the state is stepping into the domain of the federal government which is prohibited by the Constitution.

CAVANAUGH: So, indeed, it is the federal domain to monitor immigration in the United States.

KEENAN: That’s right. Our Constitution, as everyone will remember from civics class, gave the federal government very specific powers and said that in those areas, the states can’t do federal operations unless the federal government grants those powers specifically to the state. And in that respect, this law has gone too far and is likely not to be upheld because of it.

CAVANAUGH: Now some in California and, frankly, all over the nation are calling for a boycott of businesses in Arizona, tourism in Arizona. What kind of an effect do you think that might have?

KEENAN: I certainly understand the sentiment. You know, San Diego, in particular, has a close relationship with Arizona. Lots of folks travel there. And either out of fear for themselves or out of repugnance that their friends and neighbors – I mean, walk around today and see which of your colleagues or people you see on the street appear foreign or could appear to be foreign. What does that even mean? So I can understand the sentiment. I know I think it’s a complicated question whether you do a boycott or not but there’s a lot of movement in that direction. There’s already been some major conventions that have been pulled out of Arizona. I think it’s going to really hurt Arizona, certainly its reputation, for another generation.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’ve heard that there are some legal challenges that are actually brewing about this Arizona immigration law, actually one that is apparently coming from the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, to challenge – to try to stop the law from being enacted, to restrain it from being enacted in the City of Tucson. And are those challenges along the lines of what you were talking about, that the bill itself is – the law itself is unconstitutional?

KEENAN: That’s right. There’s various authorities looking, the federal government is looking to possibly sue, and civil rights organizations. We’re working with civil rights organizations right now to prepare litigation. I expect you’ll see a number of angles to try and stop this in its tracks. But, Maureen, you know, there’s one aspect of the law that I’m so surprised hasn’t gotten more attention I think would concern every listener out there. It – The law allows any Arizonan who thinks that the police aren’t doing a good enough job of stopping anyone reasonably suspected of being undocumented, allows any disgruntled Arizonan to sue local authorities, county authorities, because they aren’t implementing law. This is extraordinary. And what it does is, it forces the police to make this their top priority in law enforcement over other legitimate public safety concerns, be it sex offenders, be it murderers, be it rapes, the whole panoply of things that we’re really concerned about and that have no correlation to even illegal immigration are going to be made secondary to go – pulling over people who look undocumented.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to also ask you a question about the movement that Congressman Hunter mentioned about the idea of trying to get – to deport U.S.-born citizens of illegal immigrants and perhaps even stop allowing people who are born in this country, if their parents happen to be here illegally, of denying them U.S. citizenship. What’s your reaction to that movement? Does that have any legitimacy under the Constitution?

KEENAN: Well, you know, I – I was very disappointed to hear Congressman Hunter say that. And today he said it differently than he said it on the YouTube video, which has been circulated, and I encourage people to watch what he really said when he didn’t think he was listening to mass media (sic). And, look, we’ve worked with Congressman Hunter on trying to reduce deaths in the All American Canal. There are some good things that Congressman Hunter understands. But he’s pouring fuel on a rhetorical fire right now, just as Congressman Bilbray did, in saying that you can detect immigrants by the clothes that they wear, and that is irresponsible. The Arizona law, you know, if it’s – if it’s not a temper tantrum then it’s just a completely irresponsible public policy and our elected leaders in this moment really need to act more responsibly and more morally.

CAVANAUGH: My final question to you, Kevin, is do you see anything good coming out of this new Arizona law?

KEENAN: It certainly clarifies just where people stand and how far certain people are willing to go to violate constitutional rights, you know, as a misguided way of addressing a serious immigration issue. You know, Tea Party activists and others have been clamoring about protecting constitutional rights. If that’s so, and I really hope it is, they need to come out publicly and, you know, object to the constitutional violations in this law.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KEENAN: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU, San Diego & Imperial Counties. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard, go online, Coming up, an election update with KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.