Once again the state government of Arizona has managed to embarrass itself in public. Last time the embarrassment was purely symbolic, hurting only the feelings of those who wanted Arizona to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. After the Super Bowl was moved from Arizona to California in 1991, in a pointed protest against the state's refusal to adopt the holiday, and an effective tourist boycott of the state began, Arizonans decided in 1992 that they would, if it was costing money, sacrifice their anti-King principles and yield to the pressure.
Today the embarrassment, laced again with strong racial overtones, is more than symbolic, since it comes in the form of a legislative action permitting police who have "reasonable suspicion," (not "probable cause," the more common, and more rigorous standard) to demand proof of one's immigration status. A couple of statistics here might serve as useful background.
Thirty percent of Arizona, almost two million persons, are Hispanic, overwhelmingly of Mexican background. Of these, one in four is undocumented, a population estimated at about 460,000; in other words when a police officer identifies someone correctly as being Hispanic in Arizona, there is a reasonable chance (one in four) that person might lack proper documentation. Logic would suggest that two million Hispanics had better be prepared to "prove" their citizenship, whatever that might come to mean. The law does stipulate that racial or linguistic profiling is not to be used in determining "reasonable suspicion." But what else is there? You trust government officials to find a reasonable way of identifying people as undocumented aside from their looks or language? Or is it more likely police might learn to allege other reasons for stopping someone, after the fact, so as to be able to get away with profiling without saying so?
Given the demonization of migrants in recent years in some areas of the Southwest, given good-old-fashioned racism in significant pockets of the population, this law could easily result in the creation of a class of persons--Hispanics--under permanent social, as well as legal suspicion. That is to say, the law legitimizes the formation of negative attitudes toward Hispanics; particularly encouraging an association between Hispanic appearance and unlawful behavior. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are, for once, not over the top. This is why it will not stand and will almost certainly never become law.
The government of Mexico has suspended all flights from Mexico to Arizona. A traveler's advisory warning has been issued by the foreign ministry of Mexico, warning Mexican tourists they might be vulnerable to abuse by police in Arizona. A boycott of Arizona, once more, is being organized by legitimate groups in several states. Citizens are quite correctly protesting this law in public in many places. In Juarez this morning the man who sold me a newspaper at a street corner was livid about the racismo in Arizona. I agreed with him. "Puro racismo," I replied.
Almost certainly, Arizonans will decide to give up the racial bias embedded in this new law, and find "technical" reasons to decide not to let it stand. But after the Martin Luther King thing, and the racially tinged movement among some Arizonians to take the law into their own hands a few years ago against migrants, this is now becoming a pattern. For a state that prides itself in its patriotism--lots of flags flying in front of houses--the legislature of Arizona should be ashamed of this highly Un-American, anti-patriotic measure, and it might think about making amends by inviting New Mexicans to offer required classes in Arizona schools about the Bill of Rights, and perhaps holocaust survivors to teach school children what can happen to a society when governments begin to encourage racial prejudice in laws they pass subjecting minority groups to identity checks by police on demand.