If the human consequences weren't so dire, immigrant advocates might be grateful to Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, for signing into law a measure draconian enough to awaken the nation's slumbering conscience on immigration. The new statute (SB1070), requiring law enforcement officials to arrest those who cannot immediately prove they are in the country legally, has been widely condemned for creating a police state. In practice, the law will make brown skin grounds for suspicion—raising concerns about racial profiling not just from constitutional lawyers and immigrants' rights activists but from religious leaders like Cardinal Roger Mahony and Republicans like Florida's Marco Rubio and the Washington Post's Michael Gerson.
President Obama called the law "misguided," saying it could "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities." Like the infamous Sensenbrenner bill, which sparked one of the biggest demonstrations in US history in 2006, the Arizona measure has enraged Latinos, documented and undocumented alike. Latino groups, together with members of the San Francisco city government and Tucson Democrat Raúl Grijalva, are calling for a boycott of the state, targeting its lucrative tourism and convention sector.
The moral outcry should not stop at Arizona's borders. The only way to assure that copycat laws don't pass in Texas, Ohio or Colorado, where they are being tossed around, is to solve the problem federally. Indeed, as Obama has noted, it is the vacuum at the federal level that created the space for the Arizona law to emerge. The president should be applauded for his swift response, but why did it take such a flagrant abuse of immigrants' rights to focus the administration's attention on the issue? Not only has the White House delayed the push for immigration reform—one of Obama's campaign promises—its Department of Homeland Security continues to deputize police officers to enforce dysfunctional federal immigration policies, raid businesses and deport thousands of immigrants; this year it's on track to hit 400,000 deportations, the same as last year, exceeding the Bush administration's 2008 record.
It's long past time for the change we were told to believe in. Beyond challenging the Arizona law for usurping federal authority and refusing to deport its victims, the administration should champion a comprehensive immigration bill that creates a clear path to citizenship for the country's 12 million undocumented residents. These immigrants work in essential industries and pay taxes, contributing to our economy and society—some analysts estimate that Arizona would lose more than $26 billion if all undocumented people were removed from the state. And yet they are at best officially neglected and at worst scapegoated, their families divided and their communities terrorized.
This untenable status quo should be replaced by a policy that makes economic, social and moral sense, one that acknowledges that millions of immigrants want to work and live in a country that needs their energy. There will be pushback, and some Democrats may have to take risks. But there are also gains to be had; Harry Reid and other vulnerable Democrats are well aware that they need strong turnout from Latino voters if they are to hold on to their seats. Regardless of the political calculus for Democrats, though, what should be more than clear by now, thanks to Arizona, is that allowing immigration policy to be defined by demagogues is simply not an option.