Understanding Arizona

If a policeman ever asks me for proof of my citizenship and I have the reasonable suspicion that the only reason he did so is the color of my skin, I will ask him to be taken to jail, where my lawyer will present my Kansas birth certificate along with a civil lawsuit against the officer and the people he works for. That sort of thing shouldn't happen in this country - and it is no more likely to happen in Arizona under that State's new immigration law. Politicians and activists who claim to be champions of immigrants or Latinos are doing no good by sowing misunderstanding, division, and disrespect for our laws and the people who enforce them.

The Arizona law requires the police to determine the immigration status of any person who is stopped for any "lawful" reason. Only if that person does not present valid, government-issued identification is there a "reasonable suspicion" that he or she is "unlawfully present in the United States," after which the officer must make reasonable attempts to verify the person's immigration status. State authorities are required to report the arrest or conviction of an illegal alien to federal immigration authorities. The law requires an illegal alien (or a lawful alien who is not carrying his green card) to pay fines and jail costs. The vast majority of the bill is dedicated to imposing stiff sanctions on those who employ or smuggle illegal aliens.

The law states explicitly that authorities "may not solely consider race, color, or national origin" in questioning someone's immigration status and that the provisions must be implemented "in a manner consistent with federal laws relating to immigration, protecting the civil rights of all persons and respecting the privileges and immunities of United States citizens."

The President already has all the power he needs to make things better - both for Americans and for the prospects of immigration reform in the years ahead.

So, why defend a law that has stirred up so much anxiety among my fellow Latinos? Three reasons: First, a cure for this anxiety is a clear reading of the Arizona statute. Second, the anxiety is being whipped up out of ignorance or with the cynical aim of painting the Republicans who run Arizona as a bunch of bigots. And third, I believe we must reform our immigration system to redeem our country as a nation of laws and of immigrants, and cynicism and ignorance make that harder to achieve.

The political climate is not right for immigration reform. The Obama Administration has yet to invest the time and energy to prepare the public and their lawmakers for such an initiative. Some suggest that President Obama is prepared to move ill-fated immigration reform precisely so expected Republican opposition will alienate the growing Hispanic vote. I wonder if the Administration can risk appearing so out-of-step with public opinion on yet another issue, when so many Americans feel the border is out of control. Moreover, proposing work permits, let along green cards, for 12 million illegal immigrants while 10 percent of Americans are out of work will add insult to injury. In short, a fruitless debate now on immigration will leave the President's base let down and his opponents fired up.

However, the President already has all the power he needs to make things better - both for Americans and for the prospects of immigration reform in the years ahead. He can start by responding to the people of Arizona by allowing the Governor to deploy the National Guard on their southern border. He can assign federal officers to support local law enforcement in addressing the violent crime spree - including 300-400 kidnappings in each of the last two years - that is plaguing Phoenix and other cities. He can do something about jobs and wages by punishing U.S. businesses that willfully employ illegal workers. And he can kick-start the sluggish U.S. aid program to support the Mexican government's war against the very drug cartels that, according to the U.S. Justice Department, constitute the greatest organized crime threat on our own soil. Stepped up border enforcement not only will keep out returning criminals (about 17 percent of illegal immigrants today), it will target the trafficking in drugs, people, illicit cash, and illegal arms that sow mayhem on both sides of the border.

Last week, Senate Democrats outlined an immigration reform plan beginning with stepped up enforcement, including more border patrol and customs agents, the use of high-tech ground sensors to detect illegal crossings, and fraud-resistant Social Security cards to accompany the tripling of fines, and even jail time, for those who employ illegal workers. Republicans should commit now to support these new measures on the border now and to consider broader reforms once the border is secure.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform like me must accept that effective border controls will have to be in place before the American people will get behind any sort program to normalize the status of millions of immigrants. An honest debate on this subject can only begin when Washington stops ridiculing Arizona's new law and starts fixing the very real problems behind it.

Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at AEI and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents foreign and domestic clients.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Wonderlane/Creative Commons

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