James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Immigration

  • Mitt Romney's Most Interesting Ad

    The Obama team may not have seen this one coming.

    You may have seen this already. I hadn't, and I love it (seriously). It's worth the watch, on many levels, and right through the end:

    Soy James Fallows, and I too valoro mucho que somos un nación de inmigrantes. Congrats to whoever came up with this -- including the footage of George Romney's south-of-the-border past.

  • Demography as Destiny: The GOP's Self-Inflicted Wound

    Who killed the GOP (if it is ailing)? Four hypotheses

    I mentioned yesterday the "demographic suicide" analysis of the modern Republican predicament: that in its increasing fealty to an older-white-male-Southern base, the party has moved itself toward structural-minority status. Can it really happen? Look at the predicament of Republicans in California, after Pete Wilson led them over the anti-immigrant cliff a generation ago. Four readers weigh in to augment and challenge this theory.

    What George W. Bush Knew. A long-time observer and participant in Democratic politics, from the West Coast, writes:

    I've always maintained that George W. Bush's greatest failure has gone largely unremarked:  He quite clearly foresaw that the GOP would die if it became the party of white guys alone, and he specifically wanted to broaden it to include Hispanics/Latinos at the very least. 

    Part way through his Presidency, however, perhaps as a result of what was observed in Florida in 2000, at some klatch among GOP strategists (which, if it was a single event, would seem to merit a footnote in history), it was decided by people more powerful in the GOP that, rather than accept the changing demographic, the better approach was simply to deny non-whites and other marginalized people the right to vote, to the extent this could be arranged.  That effort went into gear quickly, and broadly, and remains in gear to date.  (A variant is the GOP facilitating creation of "minority majority" Congressional districts.)  Of course, this merely buys time.  But it has bought a lot of time.

    The long arc from Eisenhower. Mike Lofgren, who is a long-time observer and participant in Republican politics on the East Coast, writes:

    We may have come to the endpoint of a 50-year political arc for the Republicans on the subject of anti-intellectualism. After Sputnik, we had Eisenhower's initiative to aid science education. Note that Ike said that the need to educate a large pool of scientific and engineering brainpower was of vital national interest - far beyond the need for weapon systems themselves. And that same year (1958) Vice President Nixon (yes, Nixon) gave a speech extolling higher education in the humanities.
    The first real break in this attitude toward learning by any major political figure came from George Wallace's sneers against "pseudo-intellectuals." A couple of years later, in executing Nixon's Southern/hardhat strategy Spiro Agnew condemned an "effete corps of impudent snobs."
    But it has now degenerated to the point where Romney, a Harvard JD himself, has to inveigh against the "Harvard faculty lounge," and the message of Santorum campaign can pretty much be summarized as "ignorance is strength." And even back when Agnew was excoriating the nattering nabobs of negativism, he did not have the vast echo chamber afforded by a national multimedia conglomerate which expressly appeals to an uneducated and/or low-IQ demographic, and the viewing of whose "news" programs, as polls have shown, makes the viewer less informed than if he had not seen anything.

    The law that really changed history. A child of immigrant parents writes about the under-appreciated force behind the new demographic laws of politics: the 1965 immigration reform act. That law is not under-appreciated by me, since I've written about it several times in the magazine and in books. But the reader is correct about the disproportion between how much it changed America and how often it's discussed.

    Reading the excellent NY Mag Article you linked to about the demographically dwindling Republican base lead me to think about one of the most overlooked acts of our time - the 1965 Immigration Reform Act.
    Now when most people think of landmark 1965 legislation, they rightly think of the Voting Rights Act. But demographically speaking, the Republican "Southern Strategy" would not have been stopped just because ten percent of the population had their voting rights guaranteed. No, the reason for Republicanism's decline is the influx of immigrants from all over the world who don't take kindly to the racism the Republicans now seem to openly sell.
    Case in point - my parents came from Asia in the mid-1970s. They tend to be, my father especially, socially conservative. But they would never vote Republican on a national level - especially with the turn the Republican party has taken since September 11th.
    The 1965 act was actually an afterthought at the time, just made to get rid of an embarrassment of a system that prevented any Asians and Africans from coming. Nobody expected that we'd come in droves, and change the face of America in the process. In 1960, the population of America was ~ 90% White, 10% Black. In 2010, it was 72.4% White and 12.4% Black - and a strong 15% "other," a number which is projected to grow.
    Now without the Voting Rights Act, I'm sure much of that 15% would also be disenfranchised, or at least less free. But it's interesting that the greatest conservative fears about the Voting Rights Act - that of losing white power - were amplified by the afterthough Immigration Act. I wonder now, when President Obama has overseen landmark legislation in consumer protection for finances and health care, what afterthought of a bill we're overlooking.

    The real cost of the anti-"snob" speech.  A reader responds to my assertion that Rick Santorum's "college is for snob" speech was mainly offensive to the college-boy crowd:

    It's no insult to the "creative class," who weren't going to vote for Santorum under any circumstances anyway and don't consider him worth resenting or being insulted by.

    What's devastating about it is he's saying it to audiences full of working-class people who've been struggling and saving up their whole adult lives so their kids can be the first in their family ever to go to college and have a hope for a better life.

    I know how my conservative grandfather, a carpenter, would have reacted to that idea when he was finally able to send my father, his second son, to the local college on a scholarship as the first in the family ever to be able to get that education.

    (What really gets me is that the conventional wisdom among the punditry is that Rick Santorum is "likable.")
  • See the World

    Should Americans travel across their own country? Or around the world? Yes.

    We'll get back to the whiny wealthy poor in a moment. For now, let's consider a different kind of want -- the lack of experience in the wide world that, according to a reader message I quoted here recently, is where many Americans are impoverished. I said that I agreed -- and that my let's-improve-America plans all included getting more Americans to see the world (Peace Corps, teaching English, bumming around, whatever) early in life.

    A PhD candidate begs to differ:

    >>Your post bugged me.

    I'm an engineering student at MIT, and I haven't traveled much outside of the US, mostly because I've doubted the utility of doing so. I imagine it would be fun to experience different cultures, to discover how the French bake, or to wake up at a bed-and-breakfast in a foreign land. But how much does that help me? In the context of "fixing America," how much does it help America?

    I've witnessed friends who've gone off to do fellowships or study abroad programs in foreign lands that have amounted to glorified vacations. I stayed behind in America to do computer science research because I wanted to maximize my impact. I'm a little jealous of my friends. :-)

    Is there really value in exploring foreign lands? Or I have become a curmudgeon already?<<

    Short answer: Yes, and yes! For the longer answer, let's hear from a few other readers. First, this:

    >>I have many, many regrets in my thirty-five years on planet Earth. Near the very top of this increasingly long list is never having studied abroad. My wife, on the other hand, has always been more sophisticated than I, and she spent a semester in Australia. It was certainly one of the most formative experiences in her life. My younger sister, also more sophisticated, spent a semester in Florence. It made such an impact on her that nearly a decade later she got married in a Tuscan village (it was a destination wedding, she still lives here). My mother-in-law did a Peace Corps stint in Nigeria, and the zebra skin she came back with more than forty years ago still covers the floor in our family room.

    Three years ago today, I was wrapping up my honeymoon in northern Spain, and I probably think about it once a day. When I am not thinking about Barcelona or the trip to the British Isles my parents to me on after college, I am watching Anthony Bourdain or reading European history.

    The obvious point is that a trip overseas fundamentally changes who you are, and for the better. I listen to the news differently, read the news differently, taste food differently, and generally contemplate the world differently. Your point about getting younger adults overseas is a brilliant point, and should I have children I will encourage them to spend as much of their youth in a foreign place as possible. But let make a larger, perhaps naïve insight.

    I was, mostly, in favor of the 2003 Iraq War and believed strongly in our reliance on American militarism. Just a few weeks in Western Europe cured me of that. Imagine if I spent time in places where the people didn't look like me!! But when I reflected upon this evolution, it occurred to me that if in 2002 George W. Bush, whom I believe to be a good man, spent one season travelling with Rick Steves, we would have stayed out of Iraq. Americans who don't travel abroad are, inevitably, ethnocentric. Those of us who are fortunate enough to travel have a different appreciation for our world, and are far more reluctant to wreak havoc upon other cultures.<<


    >>I was just looking at the Foreign Policy's 65 Most Important Cities (or some such title) and feeling so grateful that I have visited so many of the cities. I am in my mid-50s and when I look back on my life my travels are the one area where I regret nothing and wouldn't change a thing (except perhaps to have traveled even more).

    Now I live in Nevada, known for Las Vegas, but in reality full of gigantic (someone familiar only with the eastern part of the country can hardly imagine how huge) swaths of empty land and rural towns. Many of the counties have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, suicide, and other misery indicators in the country. I look around these towns and counties and now know what it's like to live somewhere, especially as a teenager, where there is nothing to do and little hope of going anywhere but where you've been all your life.

    Forget London and Berlin and Paris. Take these kids to San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or Acadia National Park. I am not trying to be patriotic, or parochial; I'm suggesting their poverty of experience is so severe that a trip a mere 200 or 2000 miles away, inside their own country, would do them a world of good.<<

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  • A Primer on Bigotry

    Why it's as wrong to talk about "the Muslims" as about "the blacks" or "the Jews"

    (Please see two updates at the end.)
    This is a tussle I never imagined I would get into, as I pointed out the first time. But I've gotten a variety of messages and seen a variety of online response that together make me think I should go one more round.

    The starting point was whether there was anything objectionable about a mainstream magazine's editor-in-chief, who is about to have a fellowship named in his honor at the world's most famous university, writing on that magazine's site, "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap."

    I suggested that if such a person were any less well-connected, or if the sentiment had been about any other religious or racial group, he would be taking much more heat. (See: Marge Schott, Al Campanis, Trent Lott, Mel Gibson, Pat Buchanan, Dinesh D'Souza, Helen Thomas, etc. Think even of the flap over Lawrence Summers's comments about gender differences in math-and-science skills, or James Watson or William Shockley on racial differences in IQ. Try to find in one of these cases something approaching "Group X's life is cheap.") The question was all the more salient because, when called on this claim by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column, the editor doubled down and said that "Muslim life is cheap" was "a statement of fact."

    The dissenting mail I've gotten has fallen into two main categories. Category one: He's right! Islam is a culture of violence, and Muslim life really is cheap! Category two: That was an unfortunate statement, but he's a great guy with a big heart.

    I want to consider these together, because they combine to illustrate what I consider an important point. This takes a little space and comes after the jump.

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  • Asian-Americans, the "Mosque" Furor, and Immigrant Idealism

    "We shock easier, I guess"

    Previously here and here. I'm quickly cycling out these dispatches about the meaning of outsider status, insider-acceptance, security, diversity, resilience, etc because they bear on two big questions of the moment: what we're learning about America through the "mosque"/Koran flaps, and what we've learned about America and the world in the past nine years.

    This message, from a Korean-American, is sent in support of the original dispatch from a young Chinese-American student who was puzzled and shocked by the anti-Muslim mood:

    "Perhaps my stomach curdles because through this debate, I've seen a shadow of that type of hysterics I've always associated with history. I suppose it's still around, and seeing it gives me a great shock. "

    Your Chinese-American e-mailer described my feelings pretty well with these statements. I'm a first generation immigrant to this country as well - I was born in Korea and came over for school. I think the shared first generation immigrant experience may be a reason for the similarity of our reactions to the Park51 controversy.

    Having had a privileged life thus far as an educated immigrant, the America I know is open to strangers (at least to my "kind"), generous, and free. It's a competitive place but where meritocratic principles are honored. In a word, it's a "fair" society. It's not like Korea or China, Mexico, or America of another age. It's the young, cool, confident, can-do America that I immigrated to. So, when I see echoes of "history" in a nation that is beyond history, I'm gripped by the same shock. Can we regress, even in America?

    No one has more honest to goodness faith in American exceptionalism than the immigrant who just got here with big dreams. So we shock easier, I guess.
  • Quick Retorts on 'Chinese-American View of the Mosque'

    Forgetting the past can be a virtue. Up to a point.

    Not all readers buy the idea that a reader whose parents were born in China, but herself was born and raised in the US, should find so mystifying the nativist side of the American character that is being displayed in the "mosque" and Koran-burning controversies.

    Two representative responses below. The first says that the Chinese part of the writer's heritage should reduce the apparent "strangeness" of anti-Muslim activities; the second, from an Indian-American, says that familiarity with ethnic passions should be part of a basic understanding of America's living past. First, about China-and-Islam: 

    it's incredible that someone only one generation removed from China (presumably still visiting family there, etc) sees America's irrational treatment of Islam as such an anachronism. China was dictating the boundaries of Islam well before half of America got on the bandwagon. How many Chinese enjoy Uighur street food without recognizing that some Chinese Muslims are forced to keep their restaurants open throughout Ramadan? 

    Now, from a reader named Krishna:

    Your most recent reader letter "A Chinese-American View of the "Mosque" and the Muslim Menace" had me spurting my latte all over the computer this morning. After cleaning it up, my reaction, is wow, we really are doomed as a nation.

    Becoming American, for immigrants and their children, is often described as a process of forgetting. And I'd take that one step further: Being American, regardless of what generation you are, is also about forgetting the past, and being able to focus on the future. But I've been having this debate for years: is education about struggling not to forget; or is about creating stories that just aid in the waking dream we live in.

    Your correspondent claims to be 20 years old, and I assume in college, so perhaps he hasn't gotten that piece of paper that says he is educated, but wow. Talk about forgetful. Anyone with any self-awareness as an American could tell you the ugly undercurrents this "Ground Zero Mosque" business reveals aren't anything new. We've been dealing with this for 400 years. I mean, Peter Stuyvesant didn't want to let some Brazilian Jews build a synagogue until his bosses told him so.

    But as I said, being American is about forgetting. But should educated Americans forget as well?

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  • In Defense of Johnny Hallyday

    In the spirit of Lafayette and Tocqueville, a voice for Franco-American amity.

    A non-French reader now based in France has concluded that I am a Francophobe. Pas du tout! On opportunity-cost grounds, I may mildly regret the years I spent loading French, Latin, etc into my schoolboy brain (as opposed to Arabic, Chinese, etc), but that is hardly France's fault. Least of all is it the fault of the French singer whose box office appeal was established by the time I was learning the language and has spanned more decades than Bruce Springsteen's: the immortal Johnny Hallyday, shown in a previous post in folkloric (if unintentionally comic) outfit, thus:

    Thumbnail image for 17518.jpg

    The reason I had involved Hallyday in the first place was to argue that Arizona's "show me your papers" immigration law seemed fundamentally Gallic/Napoleonic (or Chinese) in its inspiration, rather than American. That doesn't make me either anti-French or anti-Chinese. I like both places, as I like "the Elvis of France," Johnny H himself. But I do stand solidly with James Thurber, as previously quoted in saying that "je vais demander ses cartes d'identité!" is a French import we don't need. Here's the reader's complaint:

    I've been sitting here, a casual francophile, in Sète, south of France, for a couple or three weeks steaming about your no-comment-necessary take-down of Johnny for dressing up as a cowboy, complete with wool Stetson, medallion, Rolex, and super-bowl ring.

    What you may not understand is that Johnny never had a choice in the matter, not after Elvis first turned out for, what was it, Love Me Tender? If Elvis had played mostly carnival barkers or seal trainers Johnny would have had to dress up as one of those, no fault of his own. It was the career choice.

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  • Arizona Is Becoming France: New Evidence

    Johnny Hallyday: the true Arizona maverick.

    Previous discussion has covered whether Arizona's new immigration law is more Chinese in its inspiration, or in fact more French. Here, which includes links to earlier items. Now, thanks to Robert Mintz, whom I've known since we both survived the smoggy SoCal of the 1960s (and a simultaneous note from Joseph Hearst), literary evidence on the French side.

    It's a passage from a 1930s-era essay by James Thurber, called "Wild Bird Hickcock and His Friends." Thurber loved reading French pulp-novel versions of American Westerns, and he described one of them thus:

    There were, in my lost and lamented collection, a hundred other fine things, which I have forgotten, but there is one that will forever remain with me. It occured in a book in which, as I remember it, Billy the Kid, alias Billy the Boy, was the central figure. At any rate, two strangers had turned up in a small Western town and their actions had aroused the suspicions of a group of respectable citizens, who forthwith called on the sheriff to complain about the newcomers. The sheriff listened gravely for a while, got up and buckled on his gun belt, and said, "Alors, je vais demander ses cartes d'identité!'' There are few things, in any literature, that have ever given me a greater thrill than coming across that line.

    Thurber's essay does not seem to be available online, but this passage shows up in many places.

    French rocker Johnny Hallyday (right), as a cowboy:


    To wax serious for a moment, although I would bet anything that the new AZ law will be thrown out by some court along the way, evidence suggests that for now it is more popular than not with the US public. The larger point is that immigration is about the only topic that is more complicated -- both as a political matter and as a question of substance -- than dealing with health care. The American economy is geared to having a large quasi-legal or illegal immigrant presence; many Americans like the economic results but don't like the economic, social, legal, etc consequences. Since the US is not going to deport millions upon millions of immigrants, any conceivable deal requires BOTH a promise to restrict future illegal flow and something short of mass roundups and eviction for those already here. But practically no one believes the "this time we really mean it" promises about future border control. And so on.

    To sympathize with the AZ officials, they're responding to a genuine national dilemma. Still, their law sounds French. The new face of the 48th state: Hallyday again, about to ask for cartes d'identité.


  • Essay Question: Is AZ More Like China -- or Like France?

    Zut alors! Qu'est-ce que c'est dans l'Etat d'Arizona?

    I realize that as a web-site topic, the new Arizona immigration law is about running its course -- even before its effects in the real world kick in. But before we say good bye to it (previously  here and here and here and here), two more reader reactions, on the shared theme of unintended consequences. First, about which people will find the "show me your papers" request trickiest to deal with:

    The truly entertaining bit about the new papers-please regime in Arizona is that it's actually harder for Americans to demonstrate that they're legally in the US than it is for anyone else: to a zeroth-order approximation, no American has a passport (the most recent figure I've seen is 25%) or citizenship card, let alone carries it with them.  Driver's licenses and social security cards don't demonstrate anything about the holder's legal presence.  In contrast, someone who is illegally in Arizona and might well already have an illicit social security card has little downside to acquiring knockoffs of whatever documents the local authorities want: I predict Arizona's next booming industry will be forgery.

    Now, from a reader who says it's not quite right to compare the new Arizona to Communist China:

    I empathize with your misgivings over legislation that would allow law enforcement officers the right to demand identity papers from whomever they meet in the street. Meaning that an individual must have on him or her/ self her national ID card or a passport (for a foreigner). That is the case of France where I live.  The French must always have their National ID card on them - for the police can demand to see it at any and all times. 

    Foreigners, in principle, must always have a piece of ID on them - like a passport. I never carry this with me - in 14 years of living here, I've never had my passport on me except when I've been on my way to the airport and going abroad.  But I'm white and look (sometimes sound) French of Gaullish stock. The police, in the vast majority of cases, stop and demand ID papers from youngish (under 40) males of African or Arab descent, be they French nationals or no.

    It is not a well-looked upon practice of the police, but the French aren't adamant enough against it to seek its abolition. As far as I understand, such identity checks have been a long staple of police work in France going back to the Revolutionary/Napoleonic era wherein the State underwent a reinforcement of its prerogatives over the citizenry.

    The immigration bill will, paradoxically/ironically, make the libertarian/Goldwaterian Arizona resemble France which is prone to double up on control measures despite its laxist ways in enforcing "rules" (ie, concerning smoking, driving, paying taxes, etc...).

    If the Democrats had any sense of panache, they would point out that in conservative politics the only thing more wounding that saying someone's system is like the Communists' is saying that it has that certain je ne sais quoi.

  • Yet Another Arizona-China Convergence

    The world's #1 country in size of population, and America's #48 state in order of admission, decide to merge

    Following previous evidence that the two places are becoming one here and here and here. (Maybe plate-tectonic movement will eventually shift Arizona until it's off the coast of Zhejiang province? That would solve one adjoining-country immigration problem for Arizona, but perhaps open up another.) A reader who lived for years in Hangzhou reports that at the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, the city whose patterns of daily life will stand for the North American continent as a whole will be... Phoenix! The reader points to this Wikipedia entry:

    In the [Expo's] Urban Dwellers pavilion, video clips narrate the exemplary stories of six real families. The continents are represented by their home cities of Paris (Europe), São Paulo (Latin America), Phoenix, Arizona (North America), Lijiang City (Asia), Melbourne (Oceania), and Ouagadougou (Africa). The circumstances of life of the six families are presented in five chapters concentrating on the issues of home, work, relationship, education, and health.

    Artist's conception of the Urban Dwellers site, with sky colors taken from real life:

    The reader adds:

    Wonder what the "real family" will look like!  hehe.  I'll be there to check it out in person next month.  I'll make sure to bring my papers with me that day!

    I'll be there too next month, and the combined Chinese/Arizona forcefield will make me extra sure to have my "papers" close at hand.
    For the record: I have absolutely nothing against Arizona, where I have been on countless happy visits, starting with annual Boy Scout camping trips from age 11 onward. But I am proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham in saying that this is an embarrassing, un-American law.

  • More Arizona-and-China Convergence -- Now With Texas Angle!

    China leading the way for Arizona -- and possibly Texas too.

    In response to this item, discussing the judgment calls that Chinese security forces make when asking for a foreigner's "papers," and what lessons their practice may hold for Arizona policemen planning to enforce the state's new immigration law, an American academic who asks not to be named sends this account:

    A quick follow-up to the second emailer's comment that Chinese authorities are "looking for people with subversive ideas or tendencies, not people who are simply present illegally." This was not my experience in Tianjin, a large but less-known city near Beijing.

    While I was visiting my wife (who was living in Tianjin continuously for a year), the police dropped by unannounced several times to spot check that everyone in the apartment had registered their passport at the local police station (required by law within 24 hours of arrival).

    On one visit, I had registered, and on another, I hid in the bedroom. The process for registering took about 3 hours, and it was clear that the station bureaucrats were not used to doing it. So it seemed to be an individual tic of an aggressive police officer rather than a system-wide policy. But that just points up the problem of granting such wide authority under Chinese and Arizona law: when you make enforcement discretionary, you're ensuring that enforcement will be uneven, subjective, unpredictable, and thus open to abuse.

    And now, from a reader in Texas:

    Houston's local talk radio shows are now warning that all those Mexicans will now be fleeing AZ and movin' to Houston.

    I wrote back to ask: Were the talk shows using this as a reason to oppose the Arizona law? Or instead to emulate it in Texas? The answer was what I expected (but it's worth being sure):

    It was definitely made as an inspiration to follow it.

    As a matter of jurisprudence, party politics, economics, inter-American relations, and social comity, this story is going to be unfolding for quite a long time.

  • Arizona and China: Compare and Contrast

    What the TSA can teach the Border Patrol.

    In response to this item two days ago, several eagle-eyed readers noticed that there perhaps there was the slightest teensy difference between the likely workings of Arizona's new immigration law and the realities of daily life inside Communist China.

    You got me! I was actually trying to make a small joke -- and half mockingly, but half seriously too, point out that American life was about to acquire an element familiar in much of the rest of the world, the authorities' request to "show me your papers." And that the comparison holds despite the zillion obvious differences between the two situations. (China is a country hard to get into, and where it's easy to spot foreigners once they're inside. The US is a country easy to get into, and where it's hard to spot foreigners once they're inside. Etc.)

    Now two comments: one from a reader who gets the item's intent and goes on to propose a brilliant practical solution; and another from a reader who wants to point out the China/Arizona differences but still argues that Arizona's law is a bad idea.

    First, from reader R. Grace in Tokyo:
    You compared the situation Hispanics in Arizona are soon to face, with the advent of the new immigration law there, with daily life for foreigners in China, being required to have proof of immigration status available on demand. Here in Japan, as you know, we foreigners are also required to carry our passports or registration cards, though I've been stopped and asked to produce mine only twice in the fifteen years I've lived here.

    I feel certain that your sardonic point - that liberty-worshipping Americans will soon be able to look up to China as a comparatively more enlightened society with regard to civil liberties - will be widely misunderstood. The responses will likely fall into two main categories: 1) People who think you're saying that it's perfectly reasonable to expect all civilians to be prepared to prove their immigration status on demand, especially since it's only Hispanics that really need to worry about it - these people will either congratulate you for agreeing with them or be furious with you for saying such a thing; and 2) People who detect the irony in your last paragraph but patiently explain that the Chinese authorities would be more assiduous about examining foreigners' papers if illegal immigration were really a concern there. 

    Of course, in most places in China (and almost everywhere in Japan), marching around demanding to see proof of immigration status would be a very inefficient way of finding illegal immigrants, since it's so difficult to get in and stay in the country from just about wherever everyone else in the world is from, but the same technique would be much more efficient in a border state like Arizona.

    What I hope will happen is that the Arizona law is enforced with the same single-mindedness of the TSA's approach to airport security. Once all Arizonans are required to present their papers daily to every law enforcement officer that crosses their path, will people wonder whether this cost is worth the "benefit" of a society that is free of undocumented foreigners? Will Arizonans who feel that they are "obviously" not illegal aliens begin, I don't know, sporting American flag lapel pins at all times, or wearing a sign around their neck saying "I AM AN AMERICAN"? It won't work, of course, because such accessories will quickly become popular with bona fide illegal immigrants as well. Maybe Arizona could pass a new law requiring American flag lapel-pin suppliers to verify the immigration status of anyone who buys one, or maybe we'll have to carry a special permit that entitles us to wear lapel pins or signs around our neck. It sounds pretty awful, but that's the price of liberty.

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  • The Arizona Law: Taking Civil Liberties Lessons from China

    What the Beijing Municipal Police can teach the Arizona Highway Patrol

    If my forebears were from Mexico, Honduras, Peru, I would have one way of imagining how the new Arizona immigration law might affect me. How could a policeman be sure, on sight, that I hadn't just sneaked across the Sonoran desert from Mexico? Why shouldn't he ask for my papers, just to find out?

    Although my forebears are instead from Scotland, England, Germany, I can still imagine a little of what it would be like. I just have to think back to being in China.

    The situations are different in one obvious way. In contrast to law-enforcement officers in Arizona, the Chinese authorities didn't have to waste time wondering whether I was a citizen. One glance told them where I stood. (I understand that there are some Caucasian-looking Chinese citizens, but they are scarce.) The only judgment call was whether they should bother to check whether, well, my "papers were in order," in the phrase we all know from WW II movies.

    If they had checked very often, I would have been in trouble. In theory, foreigners are always supposed to carry their passports (as Chinese citizens are supposed to carry their identity cards). In practice, I almost never did. When checking in for a flight or registering at a hotel in China, sure: Without a passport, you couldn't do either thing. But when at "home" in Shanghai or Beijing my wife and I kept our passports in our apartment's safe. The theoretical risk of being asked for documents was outweighed by the truly dire potential consequences of our passports getting lost or stolen.

    Once, this policy led to minor embarrassment.* Once, it nearly got us into a serious jam.

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