At the beginning of my freshmen year I was very tan and meeting a lot of people. Mark Sanchez was U.S.C.’s starting quarterback, I tended to mumble a lot and, to one guy I met, my unclear “Zeitlin” turned me from an unassuming Jew from the Bay Area to someone whose name sounded a whole lot like the guy who’s now taking snaps for the Jets.
This may seem unrelated, but much of my father’s extended family lives in Arizona. I’ve been there dozens of times and, despite the dry, oppressive heat, it’s a pretty neat state. It’s about to get less nice for those who have darker skin than me and are actually named Sanchez (or Rodriguez or Lopez or Hernandez and so on).
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed the “The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” Now, anything with a name that anodyne must be nefarious — who, after all, wants unsupported law enforcement and unsafe neighborhoods? The bill, which beefs up Arizona’s law enforcement capacity regarding illegal immigration, is one of the most restrictive and bizarre pieces of legislation to make its way through a statehouse.
Most controversially, according to the New York Times, the bill “would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.” The only thing stopping Arizona law enforcement from going the full Captain Renault — the quisling Vichy police officer in Casablanca — and demanding, at a whim, to see someone’s papers is “reasonable suspicion…that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”
But not really. Whenever a law enforcement officer has “reasonable suspicion” that someone is unlawfully in the state, they have to check their immigration status. Even if you’re a legal immigrant, if you don’t have your identity papers and documents on you, you will get arrested should a cop deign to ask you to prove your status. And if you are one of the around 350,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, you probably aren’t going to report any crimes to the police once the bill comes into effect.
I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial in pointing out that Arizona has a long border with Mexico and that most the illegal immigrants there are Mexican. So who is going to be reasonably suspicious to the authorities? I’m going to guess that it’s the Sanchezes, not the Zeitlins of the world. And while Governor Brewer has repeatedly insisted that racial profiling is still illegal and that “we have to trust our law enforcement,” one wonders exactly what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.”
Now, in China, where they too have a rule that foreigners need to have papers at all time, figuring out who might be a foreigner is understandably skin-tone based. But Arizona for Hispanics isn’t China for white journalists; instead, some 30% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and since a huge portion of the illegal immigrant population is too, Arizona has essentially made almost a third of their population “reasonably suspicious.”
Although the Arizona bill is nativistic, ridiculous, and likely largely unconstitutional, it’s understandable. In the 1990s, the federal government cracked down on illegal immigration in big cities, especially in Southern California. This drove immigration out to the less fortified desert, especially in Arizona. The crossings impose a cost on Arizonans, especially those who live or own land on or near the border. Fiscally too, states bear the brunt of immigrant populations. Since they have no legal status, illegal immigrants pay few state taxes and use social services.
Also, there is a weird national consensus that undocumented immigration, despite being technically illegal, isn’t really all that bad, or that it’s impossible to deal with, because of how entire sectors of the economy are dependent on undocumented labor and because of the sheer numbers. The solution is some sort of federal government action on immigration. And that’s exactly what the Obama administration is planning on doing.
Perhaps seizing on the nativism of the Arizona bill and looking for an opportunity to lock up the ever-growing Hispanic vote for a generation, Democrats are talking about some sort of immigration reform that will combine increased border security, higher legal immigration levels and a way for people currently in the country illegally to get legal status.
Such a deal would probably be a good one. No matter how big the gains to immigrants may be from working in the United States –- economist Steven Landsburg estimates that your typical Mexican immigrant sees a 4.5 times increase in their hourly wages in the U.S. –- and how trivial the largely ephemeral losses to some Americans may be from large scale immigration, it only makes sense that a country set limits on who they let and know exactly who they are.
But that’s it. Immigration is very good for the immigrants and (mostly) good for citizens. Immigration is the best foreign aid or welfare program in existence; nothing else so quickly and effectively raises the living standards and incomes of the world’s poor than being able to work in the United States.
So maybe something good will come of this hateful, silly law. But only if we think of the good for people who will one day become Americans.