In Defense of Arizona

Courtesy of David Frum:

The most effective section of the new Arizona law grants local police the same powers to deal with illegal migrants that New York City used in the 1990s to deal with illegal guns. Police cannot stop people on mere suspicion. They cannot stop them for being brown. But IF police have stopped someone for an offense or infraction--drunk driving, for example--they can then ask for proof of legal residency, just as New York City police will search a car for illegal weapons. 

In the past, such a request by Arizona police would have been a waste of time, since police lacked the power to act even if they had apprehended an illegal migrant. Now that illegal immigration has been made an offense under state law (in addition to federal law), police can detain an illegal.

I think this is wrong. Let's leave aside what we think of New York's law and get clear on what, precisely, we're discussing. Carrying an illegal gun in New York is a crime, and it was a crime before New York City began searching people, stopped for another infraction, for illegal guns. Likewise, being an illegal alien was also, necessarily, a crime before Arizona's law. Both laws also place a burden of search on people who may well be innocent. 

But whereas New York proving your innocence in New York means simply not having an illegal gun on your person, proving your innocence in Arizona means carrying around identification that you aren't an illegal alien. The right comparison isn't New York requiring you to submit to a search for illegal guns--it's New York requiring you to carry proof that you don't own an illegal gun.

Put differently, it was always a crime to carry an illegal gun in New York, but it was not always a (state) crime in Arizona for legal immigrants to leave their proof of residency at home. Now it is. Moreover, from what I can tell, this actually understates the law. Essentially, Arizona has made it a crime for anyone in the state to not have proof of citizenship on them at all times. Defenders of the law will say that police still have to stop you for something, and they still have to "suspect" that you did something. 

Forgive, but I don't find that comforting. Amadou Diallo is dead because the police "suspected" he was drawing a gun. Oscar Grant is dead because the police "suspected" he needed to be tased. My old friend, Prince Jones, Howard University student and father of a baby girl, was  murdered by the police in front of his daughter's home because police "suspected" he was a drug-dealer. (The cop was not kicked off the force.) Only a year ago, I was stopped in Chelsea, coming from an interview with NPR, because police "suspected" I was the Latino male who'd recently robbed someone. 

This comes down to police power, and how comfortable you are with its extension. George Will, in a bit of populist demagoguery, implies that the critics of the Arizona law are people who only know illegal immigrants as cheap labor. But I suspect Will mostly has the exact same relationship with illegal immigrants. Moreover, I suspect that he only knows the police as the kind of Officer Friendlies who only arrest "the bad people." 

I don't want to be cheap here, but it needs to said that  when you actually know decent people who are dead because of our insane drug war, your perspective on police power changes. This is a multi-million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. Someone is going to get killed. And the fact that "the vast majority of police are awesome" will not bring them back.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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