Last Wednesday, I was fielding questions in a journalism class at the University of Kansas, when one of the students asked about Arizona’s new immigration law.
Passed with the governor’s blessing, the law makes it a state crime for immigrants not to carry documents proving they are here legally. It requires the police to demand the paperwork of anyone who triggers a “reasonable suspicion” of being “an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”
In other words, Arizona has become a police state. Adults who aren’t white – and let’s be clear: they’re not talking about Hungarian chefs or Irish garment workers here – had better be able to whip out papers round-the-clock to prove they have a legal right to be here. Otherwise it’s “adios, aliens.”
Do I care about that? The student wanted to know.
“I do,” I said. “Here’s why.”
I pointed to a brown-skinned student. “Because you might look like a Mexican.” I pointed to another brown-skinned student. “And you might look like a Mexican.”
I kept pointing:
I pointed to a young white man with jet-black hair, dark eyes and a five o’clock shadow. “With a tan, you might look like a Mexican, too.”
The room was silent. All of a sudden, a mean-spirited law targeting brown-skinned immigrants in Arizona felt a lot more personal for people of color in Kansas.
Cleveland lawyer David Leopold has been representing immigrants across the country since the early 1990s. He is the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. He is also the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“I don’t make these comparisons lightly,” he said last week. “This Arizona law is like the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their rights. This time, the law is aimed at Latinos.”
It doesn’t take much to trigger “reasonable suspicion,” he said. “All you have to do, in the presence of police officers, is have an accent or avoid eye contact. Or maybe you start zigzagging to avoid crossing their path. Now they have reason to suspect you aren’t a citizen, and they can demand you provide proof on the spot.”
Leopold rattles off other possible scenarios: A neighbor calls the police and claims that someone living two doors down is an illegal immigrant. A school crossing guard notices a child who does not speak English well. A columnist with a Latino name writes something bad about a mayor.
The law is also unfair to police officers, Leopold said.
“It puts them in a horrible position. If they enforce the state law, they are breaking federal immigration law. If they don’t enforce it, private citizens can sue.”
Curiously, the law completely ignores those American citizens who offer the major incentive to those millions of undocumented workers crossing our borders: employers.
Alas, business owners are a little harder to round up on sight. So many white people, and you know how we all look alike. Why, the only way you could catch these guys is by enforcing existing laws and showing up at their places of business, where, on any given day, untold thousands of undocumented workers are earning the lowest wages in America.
Why expend all that effort to investigate and prosecute when it’s so much easier and cheaper to go after the defenseless? No money for a big-name attorney, no resources to represent themselves, no yammering about due process. Just round ’em up, rip ’em away from their families and ship ’em off.
Why does this sound so horribly familiar? Historically speaking, I mean.
Never mind. I’m sure it’s just me.
The Obama administration is poised to challenge the Arizona law as unconstitutional. Legal scholars, even some who are appalled by the new law, aren’t sure the challenge will succeed.
What is certain is that our country is full of young people like the ones I met in Kansas. They are not blinded by the fears and prejudices of their parents’ generation. They don’t need everyone to look and sound just like them. And one day soon, they will be the ones in charge.
So change may be slow, and change may be plodding.
But of this I’m sure: Change is definitely coming.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine.
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