Forcing Washington to act on illegal immigration

May 04, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

If you haven't heard of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, you will soon enough. He is an iconic hero to the anti-immigration movement in the way Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony were to civil rights and women's suffrage, respectively.

Officially, Mr. Arpaio is the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County. Unofficially, he touts himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff," the brash and unapologetic leader of a growing national movement to round up illegal immigrants and send them back to their home countries, which generally means Mexico or other Latin American nations.

Capitalizing on Arizona's 2005 "Coyote law," which gave Arizona's state and local law enforcement officials the power to take action to prevent immigrant-smuggling operations, Mr. Arpaio boasts that he has helped arrest upward of 38,000 illegal immigrants. He quickly attracted national attention, and controversy, as the guy willing to do locally what the federal government would not handle nationally.

As of last week, Mr. Arpaio and law enforcement officers who share his worldview have a new tool at their disposal: They are not just empowered to stop those who are possibly trafficking in the transport of illegal immigrants, but illegal immigrants themselves.

Now, I have no doubt that many Americans, whether they live in Arizona or not, view illegal (and many legal) immigrants as a national scourge — as scofflaws who come to the United States to take jobs from "real" Americans and sap scarce social services, all while refusing to learn English or otherwise acculturate to American values. People in this crowd — and especially that subset who descended from earlier immigrant classes who arrived in the United States without work or a command of the English language — are probably not persuadable on this issue.

But for many Americans, concerns about illegal immigration have nothing to do with race or American cultural purity or even the competitive pressures of an already tough labor market. They are simply frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of the federal government to take significant action to resolve this issue.

That frustration knows no ideological orientation, by the way. It includes liberals who want an amnesty-based comprehensive immigration reform law and conservatives who want stricter border control and the deportation of those who broke the law to get here — and in some cases are breaking the law while here. And in our post-Sept. 11 world, nobody should have to apologize for worrying that if immigrants seeking nothing more than the American dream can slip past border agents and security checkpoints, so too can those who seek to destroy that dream.

Here in Maryland, Del. Pat McDonough has introduced a bill similar to Arizona's new law, a move that will accomplish little other than to further solidify Mr. McDonough's reputation as the state's leading anti-immigrant politician. Actions like this are being presented as desperate measures worthy of a desperate time. Desperate, indeed.

Yes, the new Arizona law explicitly says that state and local law enforcement officials must have "reasonable suspicion" before so much as asking persons to provide identification that certifies their immigration status. And yes, they are further required to accept the production of a driver's license or similar document as sufficient evidence of legal status. And yes, for those persons who at that point fail to produce sufficient proof, state or local police must then confirm their status with federal immigration and customs officials.

The problem with the law is the reasonableness of "reasonable suspicion." The term is not new; it has a clear definition and tradition in the law. But paper law is often different from practiced law, and so it ultimately falls upon Arizona's law enforcement officials to interpret, on the spot, what constitutes reasonable suspicion.

Those who believe abuse and profiling are rare see no problem in that. But those, myself included, who see the "reasonable suspicion" provision as a potential invitation for abuse, are skeptical.

If anything good comes from the actions of folks like Joe Arpaio and Pat McDonough, it will be this: When states like Arizona begin to take immigration matters into their own hands, Washington politicians — including both Republicans who do not want to stem the flow of cheap labor to their corporate backers and Democrats who increasingly rely upon Latino votes to win elections — can no longer sit on theirs.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is

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