Fifty States, One U.S. Immigration Law, a Big Unraveling: View

June 9 (Bloomberg) -- A new law in Alabama authorizes police to stop and demand identification from anyone who looks like a possible illegal immigrant. The law also orders public schools to check the immigration status of their students. In Georgia, a new law cracks down on employers who evade federal requirements that they make sure of the citizenship of people they hire.

The Georgia law even overcame the opposition of the state’s powerful agricultural lobby. Farmers now wonder how the crops will be harvested on Georgia farms if illegal workers depart for other locales. And the public anxiety over immigration isn’t limited to the South.

In Massachusetts last week, the state Senate passed a bill similar to the one in Georgia -- even as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick moved in the opposite direction, joining governors in New York and Illinois in refusing to participate in the federal Secure Communities program that uses local police to check for immigration violations.

Meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state of Arizona in a 5-3 decision last month, endorsing the use of its licensing authority to penalize and even shutter businesses that employ illegal immigrants. Arizona has lost millions of dollars in tourism and convention business because of a law similar to the new one in Alabama, empowering police to stop almost anyone and ask for proof that he or she is entitled to be in the U.S.

Government Crackdown

The last time Congress fully took on the subject of immigration was 1986. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of that year declared that “the immigration laws of the United States should be enforced vigorously and uniformly.” For many years thereafter, those laws weren’t enforced vigorously. As the proliferation of state laws attests, they are no longer enforced uniformly, either.

The state efforts come just as the federal government has begun taking the law seriously. In addition to deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, the Obama administration in recent months has cracked down on Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and other food chains reputed to employ large numbers of illegal laborers. No doubt the targeted companies were surprised to see the law being enforced.

The nation’s immigration policy is a mess of conflicting state and federal laws and policies, and often ignored in practice. Easier said than done, we know, but President Barack Obama has little choice but to try to lay the political and legislative groundwork for a new national immigration system. He will get no help from Republicans in Congress, which is why he’s going to have to make his case in a more sustained way.

Mending Fractures

An election year is probably not the best time for this undertaking, but given the pace of devolution, he really doesn’t have many alternatives. What’s more, when it comes down to it, mending the nation’s fractures is uniquely a president’s job.

In a subsequent editorial, we’ll explain our support for a national policy that includes a strong enforcement provision, which is needed to ease the political pressure driving the state efforts, and a pathway to legalization, which is a necessary accommodation to realism, economic growth and the humane standards to which the U.S. adheres.

A federal law that for years went largely unenforced has produced angry recriminations. A patchwork of state laws born of frustration is likely to produce something considerably worse.

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