The substance of SB 1070, the new Arizona law that requires state and local law enforcement officials to question anyone who appears to be an illegal immigrant, is bad enough. But one of the arguments Governor Jan Brewer gave when she signed it into law is also infuriating for its hypocrisy and absence of logic.
Upon signing the bill, Governor Brewer said, "We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act. But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."
What's really stunning about that statement is it's likely that the vast majority of those promoting such extreme solutions as SB 1070 are the very group of people who have stood in the way of meaningful federal immigration reform. It's like doing everything possible to block the construction of an important bridge project and then complaining that there's no way to get from one side of a river's bank to the other.
We saw this in the wake of the last big effort in Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform in 2007. A tide of fierce and often ugly criticism, flowing largely from the far right wing of our political spectrum, effectively shut it down. Even though it was not an election year, many members of Congress ran for cover, worrying that supporting the bill could be career ending. Others, from both parties (most notably Ted Kennedy and John McCain, who took the lead on the Senate version of the bill, and George W. Bush, who drew on his waning influence at the time), waded into the roiling waters because they realized it was the right thing to do, that something had to be done.
They compromised greatly to pass what eventually was a watered-down bill but a bigger first step toward progress than we had seen in perhaps two decades. But, in the end, even watered down was too much for many conservatives, particularly the radio talk show shouters, whose demagoguery helped kill it. Doing nothing was better than trying to fix the problem, they argued. (Does this sound like another more recent scenario?)
And then they complained that no one was doing anything to fix the problem. As I wrote here in 2007, only months after the failure of the Congressional reform bill, we saw communities such as Prince William County, Virginia, try to enact draconian laws like the one that just passed in Arizona. Then, as now, we heard people in Prince William County rationalize their support for this provision by blaming Congress for not acting, even though one can reasonably assume they represented the same segment of our population (I can't honestly say the exact same people) who attacked their representatives in Congress for even thinking about passing a comprehensive reform bill.
Now, I agree with Governor Brewer that "federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation." And I don't doubt that states like Arizona get a disproportionate number of people illegally entering the U.S. from other countries, mostly Mexico. That's not acceptable.
But it's hard to imagine that a law like SB 1070 will do anything to solve the problem. SB 1070 is no substitute for putting strong border practices into place that make it difficult, if not entirely impossible, to keep people from trying to smuggle themselves into the U.S. That's why I think the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is right to beef up border patrols and deploy other technologies to stem the flow.
Also, measures like SB 1070 are no substitute for a more holistic solution, which looks at the reasons -- economic and social -- that people go to such great, and often dangerous, lengths to come to the U.S. illegally or overstay their visas and what what this country should do to deal with the millions who are living here without proper legal status and contributing constructively to their communities. That's what comprehensive immigration reform of the sort we last considered in 2007 and which Congress is about to consider in earnest soon is supposed to do.
SB 1070's call to harass people who "look" like those in this country illegally is just nasty. It only gives an appearance of solving a problem that people like Governor Brewer pretend to be so passionate to solve. It is designed to give perverse satisfaction to those who feel good about going after the uninvited strangers among us and make scared and cynical political leaders look tough for their crusades.
Imagine, if you care to, you are a U.S. citizen or legal residence who lives in Arizona and happens to appear, according to an image hovering in the mind of a law enforcement official, like an illegal. If law enforcement officials carry out the law as written (and, by the way, many police have spoken against laws like this because they forces them into potentially unsavory situations, undermines their effectiveness and makes them responsible for cleaning up a problem that is beyond their control), you could be stopped frequently and forced to prove something you're not.
It may mean that you'll effectively need to have documents on you at all times that show you are a U.S. citizen. In a nation that, for good reason, has a visceral contempt for the notion of a national identification card, how many of us would want to do this? How many of us would want the frequent disruption that comes with being suspected as guilty until proven innocent, or the humiliation of being pulled aside as others pass by and wonder what you've done wrong?
All that is sad enough. What's even more pathetic is that pending legislation that will enact smart, comprehensive immigration reform will probably have a tough time getting passed this year. There is a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, but they will still need support from Republicans to get the bill passed. Many, even those representing the wing of the Republican Party that believes in sensible immigration reform and sees immigrants as a benefit to the nation (and there are many), are being threatened even more by the restrictionist far right. It's not even clear that John McCain, who took a strong and principled stand as a leader of the 2007 legislation, will be there for it this year. McCain is fighting off a tough challenge from a far-right wing-nut who made his name in Congress (and now as -- what else? -- a radio talk show host) as an immigrant basher.
If this year's push to enact immigration reform does fail -- I hope it doesn't, but I fear it might -- it's hard to predict when our political leadership will acquire the courage to bring up anything like it again in the near future.
But it's easy to foresee how its failure will give its opponents one more reason to say that they "have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act." And thus, using their own tortured, cynical logical, these great American patriots will, once again, with mock exasperation and frequent references to the "will of the People," enact even more dangerous, muscle-flexing laws like SB 1070.
Maybe I'm being unfair to public officials like Governor Brewer. Maybe they will stand up and fight for a real solution, like the pending comprehensive immigration reform bill. But something tells me they'll do everything they can to stop it.Jeff