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Globe Editorial

Federal inertia on immigration fuels Arizona’s harsh law

April 27, 2010

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CONGRESS ISN’T directly to blame for Arizona’s draconian new immigration law, but federal lawmakers’ failure to pass a workable immigration policy has clearly fueled support for a crackdown. The border state’s new law gives police broad powers to question anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. It specifically requires police officers to establish the immigration status of a person “where reasonable suspicion exists’’ that the person is not a legal immigrant. It also makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime.

These sweeping measures would be a harder sell if Congress were dealing forthrightly with the realities of illegal immigration. An estimated 12 million people are living in the United States in violation of federal law, yet the labor they provide is tightly woven into the US economy. A comprehensive solution to this quandary must address not just border enforcement, but also workplace practices and the legal status of long-established immigrants.

Arizona’s law has no ambitions beyond identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal immigrants. And the discretion it gives to law enforcement is disturbing. What arouses “reasonable suspicion’’? The type of vehicles people are driving? How they dress? Their skin color? Millions of US citizens were born in other countries and deserve to move about without being hassled. Millions of American Latinos carry no immigration documents because they were born in the United States.

Even former US representative Tom Tancredo, an anti-immigration hard-liner from Colorado, told a Denver radio station that motorists must not be “pulled over because you look like you should be pulled over.’’

Indeed, the law opens a Pandora’s box of ugly possibilities. Will every non-Anglo visitor to Arizona become a potential target of police scrutiny?

The politics behind this stringent measure are as twisted as the law itself. Senator John McCain of Arizona once championed national immigration reform legislation, which Congress was never brave enough to take up.

Today, in a bow to the right, he backs his state’s new law as he fights off a challenge from J.D. Hayworth, a former conservative talk show radio host. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, another Republican, also backed the immigration measure, as she tries to neutralize conservatives who oppose her effort to raise taxes.

On the upside, the Arizona law has finally persuaded others in Washington of the urgency of federal immigration reform. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has signaled that he might want to take up immigration ahead of a climate-change bill. Reid may be playing politics, too: Support from Hispanic voters in Nevada could help him win a tough reelection fight.

The United States needs an immigration system that is rooted in pragmatism rather than in politics. A well-crafted national reform can provide that — and would undermine support for measures like the Arizona law, which only stirs the pot of suspicion and fear.

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