Editorial: Where will duel in desert, Arizona vs. Uncle Sam, take the nation?

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Arizona has gone and done it now, awakening the nation from its slumber over relatively yawner subjects like health care and financial reform. If you're going to bring Americans' blood to a boil, well, there's nothing quite like an old-fashioned, bar-fightin' debate over immigration.

Last week Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070, which makes harboring illegal aliens in the desert a no-no and requires cops to demand evidence of legal residency from any person who comes under "reasonable suspicion" of not being here on the up and up after being confronted through otherwise "lawful contact," such as a traffic stop.

Critics have likened the new law to "police state" policies under Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa, where you could be locked up and then some for not producing the proper papers. "Breathing While Undocumented" read a headline in the New York Times. President Obama called it "misguided."

Proponents argue otherwise, emphasizing that this does little more than make a state law of current federal law that is not being enforced. It's just another tool for law enforcement in a state where an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants make up 7 percent of the population, and where drug trafficking and kidnapping committed by illegals and the drain they pose on public resources are not imaginary problems.

Some observations:

The law may specifically say that police "may not solely consider race, color or national origin," but come now, who thinks Arizona deputies will be pulling over minivans full of Canadians? It's effectively aimed at one ethnic group - Hispanics. As such it is an invitation to racial profiling.

Supporters say this is no different than a cop pulling someone over for speeding and asking for a drivers license; in fact if you show one from Arizona, you're free to go with no other documentation. What if you're a native-born American of Hispanic ethnicity from out of state who speaks with a slight accent? Must you carry a birth certificate? If you've always been in the majority, you may not appreciate what that's like, but it's not right. This certainly makes life no easier for the 30 percent of the population that is Hispanic and living in Arizona legally.

Nor does it for Arizona police, which is why some opposed it, even if polling suggests the majority of citizens - some 70 percent - are in favor. One lawman noted that this puts his department in the unenviable position of being sued by residents if his officers don't enforce the law, and being sued if they do so too vigorously. That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't aspect makes it "stupid," says Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, as well as unnecessary, since his deputies already have the authority to turn illegals over to Border Patrol in a state that averages 900 arrests a day for that offense.

Meanwhile, Arizona has another law, passed in 2007, that makes it illegal "to knowingly employ unauthorized aliens" and has been upheld by a federal appellate court. So why not enforce that one, press the case with employers and not have to deal with any of this?

On the flip side, supporters argue that if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, and that critics are being apologists for people who may be lawbreakers. Since 1952, in fact, federal law has stated: "Every alien, eighteen years of age and over, shall at all times carry with him and have in his personal possession any certificate of alien registration. ..." How is this Arizona law different?

Finally, we get a kick out of the politics of all this. Sen. John McCain, once the sponsor of an ill-fated immigration bill that was much softer on this subject, apparently has had an epiphany now that he's in a heated, contested GOP primary; he can't bring himself to oppose this crackdown. Meanwhile, it's no secret that Democrats covet the Hispanic vote, not that that has anything to do with their position. Suffice it to say, Arizona is no longer the state that birthed Barry Goldwater of limited government renown.

While it's no surprise Arizona would be the test case, since it rests along America's porous southern border, it's still too bad it had to be Arizona, which didn't exactly burnish its civil rights credentials by rejecting the Martin Luther King holiday 20 years ago, costing it a Super Bowl. Again, boycotts have been threatened. (Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, who is Hispanic, has already indicated he won't be attending next year's All-Star Game there.) The state also is now contemplating a "birther bill" that would force candidates to produce birth certificates before they can get on the ballot. As the Arizona Republic - the state's largest newspaper, hardly a tool of the left yet "second to none" in its opposition to this law - has noted, this reinforces perceptions of a "land of backward people and oddball notions." That Texas may follow is not exactly consolation.

We're where we've always been on this issue. Border security is a fundamental responsibility of the federal government, which has done a poor job of it and can and should do better, though we've not been the biggest fans of a 700-mile-long wall. If nothing else, in this age of terrorism, it's a national security concern. That said, it is impractical and likely unaffordable to track down and deport up to 12 million illegals in this country. A better, fairer response would be to provide a real avenue for either a temporary guest worker program or citizenship, an option not realistically available to the vast majority of these folks. It would be appropriate for the U.S. government to demand a greater role for Mexico, either in policing its side of the border or in working to make conditions there more attractive so its citizens don't want to leave.

Alas, as George W. Bush discovered, and as Obama will, this is not an easy subject. Two lawsuits already have been filed challenging the Arizona law's constitutionality on jurisdictional and 14th Amendment equal protection grounds. We wouldn't mind if they were put on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Arizona has forced Uncle Sam's hand on this issue, which may not be such a bad thing.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.