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Posted at 5:53 PM ET, 04/30/2010

The predictable tragedies of Arizona's anti-immigrant law

By Ezra Klein


I think the conservatives who've decided to leap to the defense of the Arizona law need to think a bit harder about why Republican governors like Texas's Rick Perry and Florida's Jeb Bush (ex-governor, I know) are loudly opposing this bill.

And everyone needs to read this e-mail from Kris Kobach, one of the bill's drafters. In it, he recommends an amendment to the legislation allowing police officers to initiate a citizenship search based on any county or municipal ordinance. "This will allow police to use violations of property codes (ie, cars on blocks in the yard) or rental codes (too many occupants of a rental accommodation) to initiate queries as well," explained Kobach.

So quite explicitly, Kobach is editing the bill to make it easier for police to dream up legal pretexts to hassle brown people about their citizenship. That's fine, you might say, most cops are good guys, and they'll use it responsibly. But of course creating a law to make it easier for cops to hassle people who look like immigrants is going to degrade relations between cops and immigrant communities. And some cops aren't good guys, and they won't use the law responsibly and they won't deal with the fear and anger it generates diplomatically. And those cops will be the exact cops who are most likely to act aggressively, scaring or offending the suspects and leading to an incident where someone runs or refuses to produce papers or moves too quickly for the cop's liking.

Affluent, white commentators probably don't think too much about that scenario because their dealings with police are generally pretty friendly. But Ta-Nehisi Coates comes from a slightly different context, and sees all too clearly how this could end up:

Amadou Diallo is dead because the police "suspected" he was drawing a gun. Oscar Grant is dead because the police "suspected" he needed to be tased. My old friend, Prince Jones, Howard University student and father of a baby girl, was murdered by the police in front of his daughter's home because police "suspected" he was a drug-dealer. (The cop was not kicked off the force.) Only a year ago, I was stopped in Chelsea, coming from an interview with NPR, because police "suspected" I was the Latino male who'd recently robbed someone.


I don't want to be cheap here, but it needs to said that when you actually know decent people who are dead because of our insane drug war, your perspective on police power changes. This is a multi-million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. Someone is going to get killed. And the fact that "the vast majority of police are awesome" will not bring them back.

I think a lot of people believe the argument over this law depends on whether you empathize with immigrants or not, but I actually think that's slightly wrong: Your support for this law has a lot to do with how able you are to empathize with the experiences that other communities have with the policy. This law is a flammable addition into an already-combustible situation.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  | April 30, 2010; 5:53 PM ET
Categories:  Immigration  
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Thank you! This is exactly what I've been trying to say. Unfortunately the issue is being allowed to be framed the wrong way, thus the discussion is missing the point entirely. Even more frustrating is the complete indifference I'm seeing from people in my own state, the "well it doesn't seem so bad to ME" attitude. It takes perspective,and since the law won't affect these people, they don't even try to gain any of that needed perspective.

Posted by: SashaAriane | April 30, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

If France were in a situation (pre-EU, say) where 100s of thousands of Italians were entering their country every year, would a law enabling French police to ask people speaking Italian for their ID cards be considered "hassling Italians"?

Would a Chinese law enabling the Chinese government to request ID from non-Chinese speakers following the Beijing games be considered "hassling non-Chinese people"?

Give me break. No border in the world is as porous as America's southern border, and wanting to stop the flow of illegal immigrants is not racist. It's just doing what every other country in the world with borders does.

Posted by: paul65 | April 30, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Broke my heart going to grad school right next to Oakland CA, and hearing about how much the police harrassed the residents of the ghettos there. Hard to not think about it all the time. LA is the same.

Can I just say that when you hand police easily abusable power, you may actually change the makeup of the police force?

PS Ezra, do you remember the journalist who broke the CIA-crack sales story? Gary Webb died a suicide. The government was selling crack to those ghetto residents, then those "few bad apple" cops were slamming those kids' heads. Hard not to think about it all the time.

Posted by: lroberts1 | April 30, 2010 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Here's the immigration compromise I think lefties should push: Allow current undocumented immigrants to become permanent legal residents without any chance of becoming a citizen, unless they go back to the home country and apply from there.

Righties should be satisfied, because there would be "no path to citizenship."

Lefties should be satisfied, because everyone would be regularized, no one would be deported, and no families would be broken up.

Posted by: CDRealist | April 30, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

No matter my feelings towards immigrants, my feelings towards cops is that giving them virtually unlimited grounds upon which to question people's documents is a very dangerous invitation to the loss of basic civil liberties.

As a white dude, I may not be likely to be directly hassled by the current state of the AZ law. But it sure has a slippery-slope component to it that I see as the Right Wing trying to regularize the acceptability of cops being able to stop whomever they please and demanding ID papers.

Add a suspect class here, a disliked 'lifestyle' there, and pretty soon you're talking out-and-out fascism. Scary.

Posted by: RalfW | April 30, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Well, my experience says this:

I'm 50 years old and have been stopped for license and registration checks 11 times in my life. 10 of those were during the year and a half I lived in predominantly black northwest Atlanta, and every one of those was on the bridge across the Chattahoochee river into a lily white section of Cobb county.

No, cops aren't really all that good. They're just another random cross section of humanity, and subject to all the same fears.

Oh, and racial profiling is real, in case you were wondering. And good people don't do that.

Posted by: pj_camp | April 30, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

I should say "50 year old white guy" in case any one was profiling.

Posted by: pj_camp | April 30, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

This IS a combustible situation, to say the least! But, let's try hard to remember, the illegals from Mexico in Arizona and other states ARE BREAKING FEDERAL LAWS! So, let's cut Arizona some slack! The federal government has put AZ in this position by its inablility to stem the tide of illegals into this country. A few illegals are murders, drug dealers, human trafficers, and bad people. They make it bad for all those that are just trying to better their lives. But, it IS AGAINST THE LAW! If laws mean anything in America, this one must be upheld! Close the borders, fine the employers that hire the illegals, and get control of the situation! Good for you, Arizona! Someone has to take a stand!



Posted by: my4653 | April 30, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

The truth is that if the federal government had been doing their job of enforcing the laws all this time there would be few people here illegally and with it little suspicion that those encountered are illegal aliens.

And for those who think it's OK to ignore laws you don't like, how would you like it if everyone that doesn't agree with abortion on demand (and that's a majority of the citizenry)simply ignored that and criminalized it anyway.

Nice, eh?

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | April 30, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

For christsakes, the entire reason this country exists was a protest against the irresponsible use of power.

Posted by: theamazingjex | April 30, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

"For christsakes, the entire reason this country exists was a protest against the irresponsible use of power.

Posted by: theamazingjex | April 30, 2010 11:32 PM "


Anybody who assumes the police are always going to act responsibly and justly is missing the fundamental point of this country -- our whole system was created on the assumption that the state would abuse its power and infringe on the rights of its citizens.

Posted by: simpleton1 | May 1, 2010 12:28 AM | Report abuse

Really, when you think about it's none of your business what Texas or any other state does besides the one you live in. So how about you just butt out.

Posted by: JudiBug | May 1, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

This law isn't designed to solve the immigration problem.

It's designed to win the mid-terms for the cultural and libertarian wing of the Republican party and to provide a mechanism to further suppress hispanic voters (even legal voters) in future elections.

Immigration wasn't an issue at all during the six years the GOP occupied the White House and the Congress from 2001-2006.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 1, 2010 6:10 AM | Report abuse

Yes, they're breaking federal law.

But let's not lose sight of the fact that our federal corn subsidies have a LOT to do with why they can no longer raise their families as subsistence farmers.

Big agribusiness wants them as consumers. They have to come here to earn any $$ to BE consumers. We lose jobs to the illegals, but we're still consumers, and big agribusiness is happy.

We need publicly funded campaigns.

Posted by: lroberts1 | May 1, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Business doesn't want them deported because they hire them cheaper and then corps manipulate politicians with contributions...illegals are manipulated by politicians who want the votes...citizens are manipulated to take it up the azz by paying for the entire charade - only now, it's our young people who will be paying. Anyone who thinks we can support 30 million dependents (who keeps saying 10-12 million? Are you kidding) must be smoking something smuggled across.

Posted by: joesmithdefend | May 1, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

People of Hispanic heritage can avoid tragedy by wearing simple disguises to look like "Regular Americans." ........

Posted by: glclark4750 | May 1, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

This is not 'just' about illegal aliens, it is about requiring American citizens to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Failure to do so can result in a six month jail term.

This is 'guilty until you are able to prove innocence', which might be a tad difficult while in detention. There are over 200 cases documented to date of American citizens being unlawfully detained as illegals for months.

Let's not forget the deportation to Mexico in 2007 of Pedro Guzman, a developmentally disabled Californian. Mark Lyttle, a mentally ill American from NC who speaks no Spanish was deported to Mexico twice in 2008.

What exactly is proof of citizenship? In the case of a naturalized citizen it is the naturalization documents. In the case of a natural born citizen the law is not so clear. A birth certificate or social security card can be (and often are) forged.

Do we need to have a passport to travel safely in Arizona?

Posted by: HenriettaP | May 1, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Then let's stopping playing PR battles and stroking the flames by debating, lying and seeking political benefits from the law, and get around to addressing the combustible situation. Let's work towards a just solution to the legal status of millions of individuals. Let's address our racial and cultural biases which may result in heightened suspicion. Let's stop avoiding the situation. Let's address Arizona.

This issue is beginning to resemble the recent media storm on the Church sex abuse. The issue of protecting children was tossed aside and it became about attacking the Church and forcing change to its rules on celibacy.

Now this debate is going down the same path. It's quickly becoming not about the legal status and profiling, but an opportunity to call people epithets and pander to constituencies.

Posted by: cprferry | May 1, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

"Really, when you think about it's none of your business what Texas or any other state does besides the one you live in. So how about you just butt out."

Wow. You may want to do a little reading of the US Constitution. Then read a little US history to find out how your theory was once tested. It is called The Civil War.

"Immigration wasn't an issue at all during the six years the GOP occupied the White House and the Congress from 2001-2006."

Oh, please.

George W. Bush always argued for a guest worker program, and immigration was major policy goal which came to a head during his second term. 2005 saw the proposal of the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (co-sponsored by Kennedy and McCain), the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005 (pushed by Cornyn and Kyl), followed in 2006 by the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which actually passed in the Senate. All of those failed efforts became the foundation for the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 2, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse


Oh please. Tea Baggers, states like AZ, the GOP Congress, and Bush, never enflamed public opinion or passed draconian laws from 2000-2006. I never said immigration wasn't talked about. I said it wasn't an issue. I believe because of the context of my quote, it is clear I am talking of it being a prime cultural war issue.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 3, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

People supporting this have the same idiotic notion that fueled Guantanamo: everyone the authorities suspect must be guilty.

But this is even worse -- consider all the usual crimes a neighborhood is subject to. Now imagine that any witness who talks to the police about what they saw can find themselves in jail for six months if the police don't like their looks and they're not carrying a birth certificate.

Posted by: paul314 | May 3, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Someone is going to get killed, alright. And someone *else* is going to get away with murder, because people won't want to talk to police (well, even less than they already do) while they're investigating.

Posted by: ajw_93 | May 3, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

"I never said immigration wasn't talked about. I said it wasn't an issue. I believe because of the context of my quote, it is clear I am talking of it being a prime cultural war issue."

That's just silly, Lomillialor. Immigration was a major "cultural war" hot button issue throughout the Bush administration, and it became a career maker then for gasbag anti-immigrant demagogues like Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs, who built upon a theme that was the core of Pat Buchanan's failed Presidential candidacies in the 1990's. This did not suddenly become a divisive issue when Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House.

What we are going through right now is just the continuation of a long stalemate and it is no more less or emotional right now than it was during the Bush years.

This might to combat your amnesia of what took place BEFORE 2007, (but I still would suggest that if your memory really is this poor you may wish to consult a doctor):

Not an issue at all...right.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 3, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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