Show me your papers


The passage of a new law in Arizona requiring local law enforcement officers to act against people who do not have documentation showing they are in the USofA legally has created a tremendous firestorm. Protests were swift and conferences in the state normally known for plenty of sunshine were abruptly cancelled. Candidates in other states either swiftly praised or condemned the action.

For all the noise, however, if we think this through a bit this could wind up being the catalyst for actually doing something about an issue that has been allowed to fester for a generation, targeting the most vulnerable among us, separating families, and generally creating havoc at the fringes of our otherwise “civilized” nation. That could be a good thing.

The law in question is nothing less than a state’s attempt to get a handle on a problem that they simply cannot, so it has to be seen as an act of desperation. It’s not all bad, at least in the sense that it gives local law enforcement new tools to go after the coyotes who smuggle people across the desert and gives jurisdiction beyond the ICE-men who have had a very free hand to act as they see fit without any local police observation or control.

The divisive parts are the elaborate provisions that literally force local law enforcement to arrest anyone that they have “reasonable suspicion” is in this nation illegally – and if they don’t act, there is even a new mechanism to report them to a local judge for mandatory disciplinary action. It’s a bold statement of force by the state.

This drastic action prompted a dramatic protest from an unusual corner, the Arizona Republic – a newspaper that cannot be considered “liberal.” In big headlines the Sunday paper ran a front-page editorial entitled “Stop failing Arizona, Start fixing Immigration.” It blasted politicians of both parties for “pandering to fear” and grandstanding. An excerpt:

Despite the turmoil and passion surrounding this issue, there is a broad consensus that immigration is a federal responsibility and it demands federal action. State laws cannot fix it.

There is also agreement that Arizona suffers disproportionately because of federal border policies, as was seen Friday when a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy was ambushed and shot by suspected drug smugglers.

Arizona can no longer afford to tolerate elected officials who show so little interest in solving one of the state’s most pressing issues. We need leaders who will push to enact comprehensive reform. We need Arizona leadership – as a delegation all working together – sponsoring and spearheading federal legislation to fix immigration.

Reform must secure the border so that the people entering this country are doing so legally and we know who they are. It must eliminate the access to jobs that migrants are willing to risk their lives to reach. It must include an efficient system to verify worker eligibility and tough sanctions for employers who hire the undocumented.

It must provide a path to legalization that has to be earned by the current undocumented population. If they choose not to earn it, they choose not to be citizens and live in this country.

I do not agree completely with everything they say in this editorial, but I have to applaud that they said it. We have gone on for too long haphazardly and unevenly enforcing laws in ways that create tremendous hardship for people who are doing nothing more than trying to make a living. If all this noise does nothing more than force some reasonable solutions, including timely legal paths to citizenship, it could wind up being a good thing.

But there’s a darker side as this whole issue plays out, the process of defining what side our people, our politicians, and our laws stand on. Recently, Tom Emmer, the now endorsed Republican candidate for Governor of Minnesota, called the law, “A wonderful first step.”  We can now count him among those politicians who, in the words of a solidly Republican newspaper, “pander to fear” – we know just what he’s made of.

More interesting, the law is probably unenforceable without some kind of national identification card or other system that clearly denotes who is here legally and who is not. I carry no papers on me to prove my status – I have only my pale skin, which should not protect me in a state with a substantial number of Canadian and European immigrants. Is a national ID system what the supporters of this law really want? I believe we should ask that of any candidate who wants to make this some kind of priority.

As the lines are drawn, this law provides very little room for any dissent, which will certainly prove to be its weakness. Local law enforcement officers are required to act, meaning that they cannot ignore a challenge. This can empower an unusual and powerful protest.

When the Nazis stormed Denmark, they quickly required all Jews to wear the same yellow Star of David patch as Germany. The next day, King Christian X of Denmark made a point of being seen sporting the Star, and soon the entire nation wore the emblem proudly. There was little the Nazis could do. Similarly, anyone pulled over for a minor infraction of any law in Arizona can proclaim that they do not, as I do not now, have on them any proof that they are in this nation legally. My read of this law would require this person to be arrested under “reasonable suspicion.” A few thousand people doing this would clog the normal operation of the entire justice system of the state and make everything come to a halt.

A good way to celebrate Cinco do Mayo might well be to do little more than carry a sign saying, “I am an illegal alien” just to see what that kind of free speech forces the local officers to do under the law. It seems “reasonably suspicious” to me.

The new law in Arizona has been blasted by people with a far stronger interest in it than I have, but we all are about to have our hands forced as the reaction both for and against this law burns across the nation. Knowing where we all stand may actually be a good thing in the end, if we seize the moment and take action.