The state of Arizona has unleashed a firestorm with its new law to make undocumented status a state crime and to give the police wide powers to identify and detain those for whom there is “reasonable suspicion” of illegal status. Police will have the power to demand that anyone they suspect must “show their papers” and furthermore empowers citizens to sue local governments if they are not vigorous enough in implementing the law.
We are already hearing that there is no way there will be racial profiling, that this has nothing to do with race and ethnicity, and that in any case, it’s all the federal government’s fault. But the “feds made us do it” argument falls apart quickly. The failure of the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform is now largely due to the resistance of conservative Republicans — like those in Arizona — to support anything other than a punitive approach. So, in essence, Republicans are saying that they had to do this in Arizona because the feds wouldn’t do the same thing nationally. Even on that front, testimony from credible officials, including in law enforcement, is that the border is much more secure and less permeable today than before, and reports of a crime wave at the border have been wildly exaggerated.
A groundswell of protest has emerged, including from a number of Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the National Council of Jewish Women. Some opponents of the law are making Nazi analogies, but this is overkill. No one is proposing mass murder in Arizona, and we have to stop cheapening the Nazi label in American political discourse. But clearly, this is a very bad law that should be fought in the public arena before it spreads to other conservative states. America has never been a “show me your papers” country, and this law reveals that the conservative base in not anti-government at all. They really see the government as a tool to oppress those they dislike. They are not libertarians; they are authoritarians out of power.
And as to whether this is about race and ethnicity, we will see when the first Latino doctor or lawyer dressed casually on a day off is stopped and asked for papers. Will every Latino have to carry proof of citizenship? What will be grounds for suspicion? The real motivations for this law are the intense anti-immigrant feeling on the right side of the Republican party, a wing that now casually dismisses the official leadership of the Republican party. Those who object to the new law are powerless to stop it, and those in Arizona like John McCain, who once championed progressive immigration reform, have bowed to the new party ideology.
This may be as much about votes and politics as anything. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is not an elected governor; she moved up from secretary of state to replace Janet Napolitano when Napolitano, ironically, was put in charge of Homeland Security. Brewer has to appease her Republican base, which is angry about her willingness to sign a tax increase. Signing this law rebuilt her party support, just as it did for former California Gov. Pete Wilson when he championed Proposition 187 after signing a tax increase. And McCain is in a tough primary against a right-wing talk-show host. Odds are that voters in Arizona will reward them both in the general election, as California voters rewarded Wilson. But it’s worth noting that in California the benefit to Republicans of the tactic was short term, and the cost was long-term, as Democrats can now count on a massive Latino base statewide, a base generated in part by Proposition 187.
In any case, it would be difficult for leading Republicans to take too high a road here, given their party’s long-term plan to build its electoral coalition around the grievances of whites against the perceived inroads of minorities. The conservative base takes these appeals seriously, and now that the base has most of the power, they expect their party to deliver. Jeb Bush opposes the law, but he is also the same governor whose Florida in 2000 was shown to have wrongly denied the vote to many blacks who were incorrectly identified as ex-felons by a Republican consulting firm hired by the state to examine the voting rolls.
While party leaders often talk about building a bigger Republican tent, and supported the broad immigration reform now championed largely by Democrats, the last administration perverted its power by a program of minority voter disenfranchisement. Numerous scandals in the Bush administration, including the removal of U.S. Attorneys, involved the refusal of some attorneys to pursue bogus cases of Democratic vote fraud involving minorities. Others pursued “caging,” an illegal method of removing minority voters from the rolls.
It won’t be long before Republican leaders realize that they can’t overcome the base on this issue and will try to figure out how to use it to block minority voters in November. Don’t forget that Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist got his start in Arizona as a Republican lawyer standing outside Latino precincts trying to intimidate voters by asking for proof of registration.
By creating a new state crime of illegal immigrant status, the Arizona law may encourage citizens to take matters into their own hands by making citizen arrests. Consider how this could play out on Election Day, especially if those citizens are armed. Just this week, a right-wing militant tried to make a citizen’s arrest of a black jury foreman in Georgia.
The Democrats ought to see this coming, and while taking on the law itself, and still pursuing comprehensive immigration reform, should consider what this means for the right to vote. Democrats in general have shown surprisingly little interest in protecting minority voting rights. My only explanation for this is that they have so thoroughly learned the lessons of the Clinton era — that everything must be universal and nothing racialized — that they can’t even see a solvable problem right in front of them; it would not outrage whites because it would not affect their rights but would send a clear message to minorities that their votes matter. In light of the apparent demobilization of minority voters since Barack Obama’s election, this is no small concern.
Obama, for reasons that are unclear, has been reluctant to clean house in the Department of Justice, retaining a number of the U.S. attorneys put in by the Bush administration in its purge. He can make a fresh start if he gets his Justice Department on this voting rights question right now and not wait until October.
If the outcome of this outrageous law is a national reaction that isolates and marginalizes the injustice being pursued by Arizona, and a renewed effort to protect the rights of all Americans to vote, the trouble will have been worth it.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.