Heated End for Senate Committee Hearing on Arizona Immigration Law

A day before the high court weighs SB 1070, a Latino leader is detained in the Capitol. By Terry Sterling.

Ross D. Franklin / AP Photos

In an unexpected theatrical finale to a hearing on Arizona’s immigration law at the U.S. Senate today, capitol cops surrounded an Arizona Latino leader and whisked him out of a large Senate hearing room.

Randy Parraz, a key figure in the successful recall of anti-immigration former state senator Russell Pearce, was chatting with reporters in Senate Hearing Room G-50 when uniformed officers surrounded him, escorted him into a hallway, closed the door, and blocked the entry with guards. A group of Spanish-speaking Arizona migrants attending the hearing formed a circle at the back of the room, praying fervently. Aggressive Arizona reporters questioned Capitol police. A minister vouched for Parraz’s character. And former senator Dennis DeConcini intervened, telling the officers as he flashed his business card: “I know him. He’s a nonviolent man.”

A few minutes later, Parraz emerged from the barricaded hallway. He said he had been falsely accused of shoving a member of Pearce’s entourage. No charges were filed. (Pearce declined to comment.)

It was a fitting, Arizona-like ending to a remarkable morning that served as a warm-up for Wednesday’s much-anticipated U.S. Supreme Court hearing on Arizona’s immigration law. The court may set guidelines for just who gets to enforce immigration law: Arizona believes states can enforce immigration, while the federal government believes it is responsible, unless it invites states to join in.

Sen. Charles Schumer, who called the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, started the morning drama by dropping a bombshell. If the Supreme Court allowed Arizona’s immigration law to go forward, he said, he would push for legislation that prevents states from enforcing immigration law unless the U.S. government approves it. He called Arizona’s law unconstitutional.

Video produced and edited by Dennis Gilman.

Schumer also drove home the political point that illegal immigration has declined dramatically and that the Obama administration has largely secured the border by increasing Border Patrol numbers on the Arizona border by 31 percent.

Arizona’s Republican senators, both immigration hawks, had earlier derided Schumer’s hearing as a publicity stunt. Sen. Jon Kyl stood Schumer up at the last minute, while Gov. Jan Brewer declined to appear before the subcommittee.

Only Schumer’s ally, Sen. Richard Durbin, attended. Durbin is a passionate advocate of the DREAM Act, which would give some undocumented young adults legal status via the military or college. He spent much of his talking time flashing poster-size pictures of college-graduate undocumented immigrants who could be arrested under Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070.

SB 1070, passed in 2010, makes it a state crime for undocumented migrants to be in Arizona and requires police officers to check immigration status if, during a stop, detention, or arrest, there’s “reasonable suspicion” the person is in the country illegally. (Reasonable suspicion includes refusing to look an officer in the eye, riding in a car with a lot of migrants, speaking with a funny accent, or wearing odd clothes, among other things.)

Pearce, the law’s sponsor and champion, was the only witness who spoke in support of the law at the subcommittee hearing.

“Immigration,” he told The Daily Beast, is a “national crisis,” and it is up to him to get the “true facts” about SB 1070 out, regardless of the venue. “Constitution 101: states have inherent police powers.”

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As Pearce has long seen it, states have the power to enforce federal immigration law, and SB 1070 was necessary because Arizona is being invaded by immigrants, many of whom, he says, are terrorists, crooks, and drug runners.

Known as a temperamental character in Arizona, Pearce kept his cool at the hearing. He did not blow up when Schumer and Durbin needled him about elements of the law that they said could lead to racial profiling or inadequate policing.

“Illegal aliens,” Pearce told Schumer, cost Arizona more than $2.4 billion annually.

That figure was contested at the hearing by Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, a group of about 400 Arizona businesses that seeks federal immigration reform.

“The claims used to justify these laws are largely wrong or distorted,” Landfried told Schumer. Pearce’s numbers, he said, are based on stale, decades-old data, and “purposefully overestimating costs while ignoring revenues.”

DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat who served in the Senate from 1976 to 1994, told The Daily Beast that he chose to appear before the committee because SB 1070 is an “awful, devastating embarrassment.”

The Arizona law singles out people with “brown skin,” he said, and hampers law enforcement efforts that rely on mutual trust between police and Latinos.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat whose name is being floated as a possible gubernatorial candidate to replace Brewer in 2014, said SB 1070 does nothing “to secure the borders” and creates a climate of fear, violence, distrust, and racial tension for Arizona Latinos.

After Parraz, the activist, was released following the hearing’s end, he appeared slightly shaken but brushed off the incident. He has long said cooler heads need to prevail in the immigration debate.

He’ll get that wish fulfilled on Wednesday, when the Supreme Court weighs in.