Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Over the weekend, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony joined in on the attack against the new law passed by the Arizona legislature to expand police powers to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. The law basically makes it a crime to be an undocumented alien. If that doesn't sound like an inherently controversial proposition, believe me, it will by the time it gets to court.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, is still deciding whether to sign the bill. If it becomes law, it is certain to keep lawyers and judges busy, if no one else.
The obvious danger is that it will be an invitation to racial profiling, to stops based solely on appearance and to punishment for the status of being undocumented rather than for the act of entering the country illegally. Unbridled discretion to stop, detain and punish people for their status is almost the definition of that which due process condemns.
Even so, it seems to me that Mahony's strident criticism is unfair to the angry, frightened and frustrated citizens who live in fear of the violence that illegal immigration is bringing to the border. It only contributes to the very kind of polarization he condemns. Calling the bill "the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant law," Mahony wrote on Sunday that the "tragedy of the law is its totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense."
Most immigrants come to this country for the same reasons my grandparents did: in the hopes of finding opportunity and freedom, because they want a better life for themselves and their children and are brave enough and desperate enough to face huge obstacles and great dangers in their quest for that. They do not come to rob, plunder and consume public resources; they come to work and to contribute.
The same, however, is not true of the smugglers, the coyotes who prey upon the desperate and use violence as their way of doing business -- that business being trafficking in people, drugs and weapons, leaving citizens in border towns rightly frightened and desperate.
Bad times produce bad laws. The problem is not the premise of the law, but the desperation that has state officials and decent citizens searching for equally desperate solutions.
Talk to decent people in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as California, where I live, and you don't hear them railing against people consuming public resources. When California Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner recently proposed that undocumented children be kicked out of school, the move was seen by almost everyone -- including his opponent Meg Whitman, who is way ahead of him -- as an act of desperation, proof that his candidacy is floundering. What was once seen as a winning strategy in political terms is now rightly recognized as a loser in both the courts of law and public opinion.
The federal government is supposed to secure the border. Its failure to do so effectively not only invites measures like Arizona's, but complicates -- if not dooms -- the prospect of immigration reform at the national level.
In the final analysis, the greatest threat to the rule of law is the lawlessness that leaves both desperate immigrants and desperate citizens vulnerable and afraid. Rather than condemning each other, we need to find ways to secure the border that are consistent with the values and security we all came to this country hoping to find.
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See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich
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