By Geoff Schumacher
Those who are vilifying, boycotting or mocking Arizona for its new immigration law are justified in doing so. Arizona long has been one of our most culturally regressive states, and it appears to be getting loonier by the day. But I offer another perspective: We should thank Arizona for taking action.
By going to the extreme and instituting a South African, apartheid-style identification-check law, Nevada’s southern neighbor has emphasized the dire need for immigration reform at the federal level. Congress has been stalling on immigration for years, and President Obama, despite campaign promises, did not give it much thought in his first year in office. Meantime, a big problem has boiled into a huge crisis.
The crisis is most evident in Arizona, where violence from a drug cartel war has spilled over the border and traumatized much of the state. Frustrated time and again by Washington’s failure to tackle the issue, Arizona lawmakers decided to take matters into their own hands. While their solution had “all the subtlety of a roadside bomb,” as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page put it, I have difficulty condemning Arizona for trying to do something. Maybe not this thing, but something.
While the identification-check law is offensive on its face, the bigger problem is that it’s founded on a fundamentally flawed assumption: that all the people living here illegally are committing crimes, draining public resources or taking jobs away from citizens. But this generalization is not accurate.
Just as most U.S. citizens are good people striving to be productive members of society, most people living here illegally are good people striving to provide for their families and not cause any trouble. Those who believe otherwise are blinded by bigotry.
Make no mistake: I understand the anti-immigrant mantra that illegal is illegal. I understand what the word means, and I agree that those who aren’t supposed to be here are “illegal.” I also understand that some illegal immigrants are committing crimes and some are draining public resources. There’s no sense in claiming they are any more saintly than crime-committing, public resource-draining U.S. citizens.
But I tend toward practical solutions, and it’s not practical to try to round up 12 million men, women and children across the United States and transport them back to their countries of origin.
It’s also not practical or constitutional for Arizona to check identification and immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion.” Execution of this law will require racial profiling. As Esquire magazine’s Mark Warren quipped, “They’re not going to be stopping Swiss milkmaids to check if they overstayed their visas.” As a result, every one of the 2 million Hispanics in Arizona will live in a state of fear.
“Many Latinos, no doubt, will be afraid to venture out without ‘papers,’ even if they are legal residents or U.S. citizens,” writes Raul Reyes, a Hispanic attorney in New York.
The practical answer is immigration reform at the federal level. This is vital not only for the benefit of Arizona, but other states with high immigrant populations.
What does reform mean? For those of a pragmatic bent – an endangered species, I fear – reform must include a so-called “path to citizenship.”
The anti-immigrant chorus insists this is a euphemism for “amnesty.” Well, OK. Amnesty is widely identified with what President Ronald Reagan approved in 1986 – a process for about 3 million illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. The current talk about a path to citizenship would require applicants to clear a more formidable series of hurdles, including paying a fine and back taxes, to become citizens.
Go ahead and call it amnesty if you want. I find it amusing to watch true-blue conservatives wrestle with the inconvenient truth that amnesty had the support of Reagan as well as George W. Bush. The bigger question: If a path to citizenship is a no-go in your book, what’s your alternative?
If your plan is to spend billions of tax dollars on law enforcement to round up illegal immigrants, jails to house them, vehicles to transport them, lawyers to defend thousands of lawsuits and drastically expanded efforts to close the border so they don’t come back, I’d have to peg you as either someone who loves to pay higher taxes or a hate-poisoned wingnut. There’s a Morton’s Fork for ya!
In the wake of Arizona’s action, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he wants immigration reform moved up the congressional priority list. Although immigration is a dicey political issue, Reid is right to seek faster action. Not only should the legislation address citizenship, but it should provide new tools and funding to respond to the drug cartel violence along the U.S. – Mexico border.
Republicans don’t want to touch the immigration issue in this election year. Clearly, the Party of No doesn’t want to do much of anything this year, on the premise that progress only helps the other side. This cynical stance to policymaking is disturbing but not surprising. It’s the main reason Arizona lawmakers enacted their ill-conceived law.
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Las Vegas (Nev.) Review-Journal’s director of community publications.