Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arizona's Holding Up A Mirror

At the 11th hour yesterday, a judge sucked the guts out of a daring new law aimed at illegal immigrants in Arizona.

So today, as Senate Bill 1070 goes into effect, only some minor changes will be seen in the way Arizona law enforcement agencies deal with the vexing problem of undocumented aliens.

You may recall that I do not support SB 1070, even though I agree with its basic premise that illegal immigration needs to be stopped. Only a fool could argue that the federal government hasn’t abdicated its responsibility of securing our borders and enforcing existing immigration laws.

As a major gateway for the flood of illegal people, drugs, and contraband entering our country, Arizona has been drowning in a sea of undocumented workers, births to undocumented women, and violent druglords. All while politicians of both Democratic and Republican stripes have been dithering away, worrying that their position on the issue could cost them their jobs – I mean, their congressional seats.

Can New Laws Enforce Old Ones?

If you read Federal District Court Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling at face value, you can see the validity of her analysis. Judge Bolton may be the pro-Obama hack her detractors claim her to be, but she does take pains to point out some obvious facts: that plenty of laws already exist to confront certain aspects of illegal immigration (page 5), that states and the federal government need to cooperate on these issues (page 6), and that the federal government has ultimate authority as the lead organization in securing the borders (page 9).

For all of the right-wing screaming that hers is a liberal ruling, Bolton actually lobs the ball squarely in Obama’s court by validating one of Arizona’s main points of contention: that as president, he is ultimately responsible for this mess and he's not doing anything about it. It may not sound like a major victory to proponents of SB 1070, but Bolton has actually given them some good ammunition to aim towards Washington.

Further in her ruling, Bolton enumerates legal precedence in support of the idea that Arizona does not have the final say in border affairs (page 10). If we are a nation of laws, and if we’re angry that people are breaking those laws by crossing our borders without permission, then we also need to abide by the laws on our books ourselves. One bad law cannot invalidate another bad law. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

And why is SB 1070 wrong? I believe it is wrong because it basically promotes racial profiling. As a border state, Arizona has a large population of legal Hispanic immigrants and native-born citizens of Hispanic descent. By lumping all Hispanics together under a cloud of suspicion does not protect the inalienable rights of legal and native Hispanics, who could be unfairly maligned by SB 1070. How many conservatives would be howling if the bill was directed towards people of white skin?

I Oppose Illegal Immigration, Not Immigration

Let’s be clear about this: at issue isn’t the vilification of immigration and legal immigrants to the United States. If you’re a white or black American, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re the product of some form of immigration. Even the “Native” Americans came from someplace else. Immigration is how the world has been settled and developed. No problems there. Rather, the issue is the willful refusal to abide by sovereign laws regarding a person’s ability to legally enter and abide in our nation.

True, decades ago, the borders were more porous than they are now, and people came to America on the flimsiest of legal permissions. I’m not even sure if my own father’s father settled in Brooklyn by following proper channels; the story goes that he was a merchant seaman, and at one port of call in New York, he simply walked off the ship and never re-boarded. Of course, things were far different than they are today; immigration quotas were relatively new and the transition between Ellis Island’s famous screening processes (which my father’s mother endured) and today’s sophisticated population parameters was probably even less structured than Arizona’s borders are today.

What’s the difference? The difference is that today, every nation has laws regulating who can enter it, how many can enter, how long they can stay, and what they have to do if they want to become citizens. Does Mexico just have open border crossings along its sovereign northern edges? When you cross the famous bridges from Texas and California into Mexico, do you not have to stop and receive permission to enter? If somebody from Kansas went down to Mexico City and gave birth, would the Mexican government cover the cost?

SB 1070 is a Symptom, Not the Problem

America is suffering from political impotence. We have developed a system whereby people get elected to represent us not because they want to selflessly vote the conscience of their constituents, but because they relish power and incumbency.

If 70% of Americans oppose illegal immigration, as several polls suggest, then why are we even having this discussion? Why has Arizona felt like they’ve needed to take the law into their own hands? Why haven’t our elected officials taken the steps necessary to secure our borders and enforce the immigration laws already on the books? Why haven’t businesses which hire illegal aliens for cheap (some might say “slave”) labor been significantly penalized? (It's worth noting that the profiling part of SB 1070 is what Bolton ruled against, but she left in place aspects of the bill meant to discourage the employment of illegal immigrants.)

Might it be at least partly because we average voters like low costs for fruits, vegetables, newly-constructed homes, and other things? Do we assume it’s better for business owners to take a greater share of the profits by hiring undocumented workers than paying a capitalistic wage to grunt workers? Do we assume the laws don’t apply to us when we hire lawncare companies which use undocumented workers, and pay cash to illegal Hispanic women to clean our homes on the cheap? When we dine at McDonald’s or Olive Garden, do we ignore the probability that most of the people fixing our meals don’t have legal documentation? Do we really believe that if Americans won’t hire illegal immigrants, they won’t come here?

How much change can we expect if we really don't want to pay for it?

Racial profiling means little to white conservatives, and that’s to our shame. But until we look in the mirror and take a personal stand for what is really right, well-intentioned efforts like SB 1070 will keep missing the mark, politicians will continue to waffle, and illegal immigrants will keep coming.

And it won’t be just Obama’s fault.

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