Arizona on My Mind

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I have been holding off on writing about Arizona's new immigration law because I was busy with other things, and didn't feel that I had time to get up to speed.  But after finally having time to read more about it, I am, as I expected, pretty horrified.

I understand that some of the liberal/libertarian reaction to Arizona's new immigration law may have been a bit exaggerated--as I understand it (and perhaps I am wrong), the law does not authorize the police to randomly stop anyone and demand their papers; it instructs them to check the immigration status of people they're already investigating for some other infraction.  This is greatly less offensive.

But still, it's offensive.  It instructs the police to pursue their "reasonable suspicions" where the "suspicious behavior" consists of "being Hispanic", or maybe "being Hispanic, and not obviously overburdened with material goods".  Is that the kind of society you want to live in?  It's sure not the hell where I want to live (and no, George Will, that's not because I never lived around any immigrants except those who mowed my lawn; New York City, where I grew up, has quite a lot of immigrants, and they didn't just mow our vast lawns and park our cars; they went to school with us and rode the subways right next to us and everything!  It was just like that "It's a Small World" exhibit at Disney, but with better music.).

I know, I know--they're not only going to consider race/national origin.  They're going to consider those things, plus whether you may or may not have been caught in of the minor infractions that most of us commit every day

So you won't be pulled over just for acting normal--jaywalking, driving one mile an hour over the speed limit, failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign.  You'll be pulled over for those things, and being brown.  Which is somehow supposed to reassure me.

The notion that "the only people who have reason to complain about this law are those who are here illegally and those who believe that immigration laws should simply not be enforced" is, frankly, ludicrous.  I'd be pretty pissed if I had to carry my passport at all times because there was a lot of Irish illegal immigration (as there was, until recently) and my nose is suspiciously flat.  Yet I wasn't particularly enamored of giving Irish illegals a free pass on the immigration laws.

Yes, I'm more pro-immigration than the people who voted for this law . . . but this is not an argument about whether the laws should be enforced; its about how.  Racial profiling on our highways and byways should not be the how.  And the people claiming that this is somehow not about racial profiling seem, quite frankly, to be living in some alternate fairyland universe where police are going to rely on their psychic powers to peer into the minds of the people they encounter, rather than relying on external signals like . . . skin color.

I fully understand that illegal immigration causes a lot of problems in border areas, and that pro-immigration people are often too flip in dismissing these.  But the problems are not so bad as to justify such broad and crude increases in the power of the state to hassle its citizens (or of citizens to hassle each other).  As Matt Welch eloquently writes:

I have sympathy for people who are freaked out by desperate immigrants and ruthless smugglers trampling over their property in southern Arizona, and as I've said elsewhere, us pro-immigrant types too easily skate over rule-of-law objections. Federal immigration policy is a failure, and poses real public policy challenges that no amount of righteous indignation and/or handwaving makes disappear.

But anti-illegal immigration crackdowns almost always end up restricting freedom for the rest of us. And giving cops more power is almost always felt more on the receiving end by people-including people just as law-abiding as you and I-who don't look like the norm. Remember, the stated goal of the new law is "to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona." Those who think you can surgically accomplish "attrition" without inflaming and driving out legal residents, too, are kidding themselves. I doubt that many Arizonans themselves believe it.

I doubt they do either; perhaps uncharitably, I think that the people who supported this law are not overbothered because they're not the legal citizens whose skin color just became "suspicious."  Yes, again, I understand that they have legitimate concerns.  But I just can't believe that they would think that this was a proportionate and sensible response to those concerns if they themselves risked being held in the pokey until the police could check their immigration status.  The reason this law passed is that the people who support it--the same people now claiming that this isn't about racial profiling--know that it only applies to people who are poorer and darker skinned and probably speak with funny accents, anyway. 

I'd be a lot more sympathetic to this law, in fact, if it required the police to check the immigration status of every single person they pulled over, without any gauzy "reason to believe" fig leaf to cover up what's really going on.

Raise your hand if you think that law could have passed in Arizona.

Now, anyone whose hand is raised, contact your psychiatrist immediately.  You need to check the dosage on those meds.

If you think that immigration is a pressing problem, then the place to enforce it is in areas of life that are already regulated pretty intrusively:  border crossings, employment, landlord/tenant relations.  These are places where enforcement can be stepped up quite dramatically without massive intrusion into the ordinary lives of law-abiding citizens.  But quasi-criminalizing looking different . . . well, it's not just wrong. It's un-American.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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