There is a big difference between controlling the nation's border and discriminating by skin color, and Arizona's refusal to distinguish between the two undermines this nation's constitutional commitment to fairness and equality. The measure Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law last week gives police in Arizona broad powers to stop and arrest anyone not carrying proof that they are legally in the United States. The law sanctions ethnic profiling, and it underscores the need for a reasonable national policy on immigration.
The Arizona law, described as the toughest on illegal immigrants in the nation, would make it a state crime for a person to fail to carry documents that establish his or her legal residency status. The police would be required to stop and question anyone they suspect might be in the country illegally. The police could detain these suspects while they verify their immigration status with federal officials. The law creates a new track for handing illegals over to federal authorities. And in case local authorities refuse to carry out the law's dirty work, it allows residents to sue police officers, cities and government agencies for not enforcing it.
While Brewer insisted the police would be properly trained, the success of stop-and-detain policies depends almost entirely on profiling, harassing large numbers of immigrants in low-income sections of town and organizing sweeps of minority businesses. However legalized, these fishing expeditions are a waste of police resources that drive a further wedge between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
Supporters argue Arizona acted only after the federal government showed no progress toward a comprehensive immigration bill. But the solution is not for the states to go off on their own. It also is worth remembering that many Arizonans turned a blind eye during the construction boom when they wanted cheap labor to landscape their yards and clean their pools. And the provision allowing people to sue officials for not enforcing the law is red meat intended to hound police agencies to boost their arrest numbers.
President Barack Obama correctly criticized the new law and ordered the Justice Department to review it. But Obama should go further and seize the opportunity to push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress. With nearly 500,000 undocumented immigrants, Arizona's experience illustrates both a real problem and the wrong way to try to reverse the flood along the border. Federal policy should include effective border control and a reasonable path for illegal residents to gain legal residency.
A new report by the Census Bureau underscores how much foreign-born residents contribute to this nation. The number of foreign-born residents in the United States with doctoral degrees jumped by a third in the past five years. Immigrants now hold one of every four doctorates in the nation. A clear majority have become naturalized citizens, a turnaround from 2005. This nation continues to be the land of opportunity. Discriminatory responses like Arizona's to a national problem cannot be allowed to whittle away those values.