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The slippery path to a police state

Anthony Matthew Durkin | Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The issue of illegal immigration reform had taken a backseat for the Obama administration and Congress since 2008, with health care and financial reform deemed as more important priorities to resolve first. But now the issue appears to be moving back into the limelight after the state of Arizona signed into law an extremely controversial immigration law last Friday.

The new law in Arizona makes the failure to carry immigration documents a state crime, and gives police the ability to detain people they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant “when practicable.” The law also allows citizens to sue their respective cities if they feel the law is not being enforced properly. Illegal immigration is already a federal crime, but this bill allows police to charge illegal immigrants without official immigration papers with a separate state misdemeanor and hand them over to federal officials to be deported. Gov. Jan Brewer, who apparently remained silent on the issue until hours before signing the bill into law, stated that the new law “represents another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”

The law is a serious step backward in the battle to reform immigration policy and is certainly one that will be fought in the federal courts for its inherent demonization of Hispanic-Americans. Arizona has a majority white population, with close to 30 percent being Hispanic. Although Gov. Brewer acknowledged the criticisms that this bill could lead to racial profiling of Hispanics, she assured the people that Arizona will properly train its law enforcement to carry out the law, and that ultimately, “we have to trust our law enforcement.” Frightening words to say the least, and the hints of an increasing tendency towards a police state should concern everyone. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that ethnic and racial profiling of Hispanics will not be the most significant byproduct of this law given the demographics of Arizona and the increasing emotional rhetoric being placed upon the immigration question. Arizona currently has an estimated half of million illegal immigrants present in its borders now, and the hunt for this huge population would seriously detract from the basic rights of fellow Hispanic citizens living legally in the state.

The law was under enormous criticism nationally before it was even enacted. President Obama commented on the legislation at a naturalization ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House stating that the bill threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.” As has been noted in the press reports of the president’s speech, it is extremely rare for a president to comment on state laws, and Obama made the point that a federal overhaul of the nation’s immigration policy was necessary to avoid the “irresponsibility by others.” The Mexican Foreign Ministry stated formally it was worried about the rights of its citizens. The law has even divided those in the law enforcement community, with groups such as a the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police coming out against the law, while others such as the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association promoting the law. But its harshest rebuke came courageously from Archbishop Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. As leader of the nation’s largest and mostly Hispanic Catholic archdiocese, he condemned the law as a “mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant law,” and remarked poignantly that America was “now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques.”

Finally, thousands of protesters stood outside the capital in Phoenix Friday in defiance of the bill.

What is even more disgusting is the once anti-demagogue Sen. John McCain supporting the Arizona legislation in his own state since he, like Gov. Brewer, is locked in a heated primary within his own party. McCain, bowing to pressure from hard-line conservatives, reversed his 2007 position that “we need to come up with a humane, moral way to deal with those people who are here, most of whom are not going anywhere,” adding that no matter how much we improve border security, “we will not find most of them, and we will not find most of their employers.” How times change.

While the Arizona law most certainly will be challenged in federal courts and hopefully overturned, it is a wake up call to Washington that immigration reform needs to be brought back into the mix. It cannot be left up to states to enact laws that discriminate against populations and threaten the ideals of America, not unlike many of the measures that were taken out of fear to root out suspected terrorists.

Comprehensive reform will be difficult to achieve anytime soon with financial reform on the current agenda and a Supreme Court confirmation expected to take up a portion of the summer. But if Congress does not act quicker to address the issue, more legislation that espouses ethnic and racial profiling will appear. Congress needs to figure out how to address the issue through other means that do not evoke fear and hate, and invite lawless and abusive police power, or else these deplorable police state techniques will continue to surface elsewhere.

Anthony Matthew Durkin is a senior living off campus and double majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at adurkin@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.