Two years before Arizona celebrates its centennial as the last of the 48 contiguous United States, I'm beginning to wonder if they can truly make it until 2012. If Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signs into law the harsh anti-immigration law recently passed by state lawmakers -- making racial profiling the law of the law in a manner in which the term "police state" is not hyberbole -- then the desert paradise will all but have seceded from the Union. Not legally -- not yet, anyway, although in a few years who knows? -- but morally.
Here's the proposed law:
The bill, known as SB 1070, makes it a misdemeanor to lack proper immigration paperwork in Arizona. It also requires police officers, if they form a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal immigrant, to determine the person's immigration status.
Currently, officers can inquire about someone's immigration status only if the person is a suspect in another crime.
Opponents, however, raised the specter of officers untrained in immigration law being required to determine who is in the country legally. They noted that though the bill says race cannot solely be used to form a suspicion about a person's legality, it implicitly allows it to be a factor.
"A lot of U.S. citizens are going to be swept up in the application of this law for something as simple as having an accent and leaving their wallet at home," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
I spent some time in Arizona last month reporting a chapter for my forthcoming book, The Backlash. During my time there, I spoke with people on both sides of the issue, including Maricopa County's love-him-or-hate-him Sheriff Joe Arpaio (I still have his business card in my wallet!) and Sen. John McCain's right-wing primary challenger, J.D. Hayworth, as well as Tea Party leaders but also a leading pro-immigrant activist from Puente, the group that arose in opposition to Arpaio's harsh policies, which are just a prelude -- in my opinion -- to the horrors that will be unleashed under this law.
I don't celebrate the practice of people entering the United States illegally -- but much of the flood of undocumented workers to places like Arizona over the last decade have been the result of many factors, including our own illogical laws and policies. The vast, vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not here to commit crimes but to work and support their loved ones.
Americans, and Arizonans in this present crisis, have two choices. We can turn an entire state of more than 6 million people into a non-stop cauldron of paranoia and suspicion, separate children from their parents, destroy what's left of Arizona's economy out of little more than spite and -- let's be honest here, OK? -- racism, and treat our fellow humans like common criminals. Of we can provide a real path to U.S. citizenship for people who are already here and who agree to continue to pay taxes and obey our laws, and get more realistic in the future about who enters the United States and who doesn't -- and work to make Arizona a beacon of economic growth.
It doesn't seem like a hard choice -- and yet here is Arizona on the brink of becoming a rogue state, right here within our borders.
The situation is not completely hopeless. There is still time to convince Arizona's governor Brewer to veto this un-American and inhumane legislation -- although the chances of that happening seem slim. What Brewer and the political mis-leaders of Arizona need to understand is this: THERE WILL BE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES, and severe ones, if Arizona continues down this path. I know that based on past experience -- the state lost untold millions in business during the 1980s because of its failure to recognize the Martin Luther King Holiday; even though its harmful action then was arguably symbolic, unlike the very real and very tragic consequences to families of Latino descent under this law.
The alternative would be for Arizona to listen to the words of another much-honored American of the 20th Century, who said the nation needed to act in order to "improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society."
Arizona should heed the advice of Ronald Reagan.