Arizona and China: Compare and Contrast

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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.

From another reader:

I wonder if your Chinese experience is really applicable to the Arizona law. After all, what they're looking out for in China is quite different from Arizona, as you mentioned. You said of China that you, "typically did not see Chinese police asking for papers on a whim." They're looking for people with subversive ideas or tendencies, not people who are simply present illegally. In the former situation, they have to be selective and, in your words, "avoid going crazy." In the latter, where race, language, and origins are likely to be considered by many police officers to provide a "reasonable suspicion," if not "probable cause," (and perhaps where cultural biases may also be a factor), the Arizona law seems far more likely to invite abuse.
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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.
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