Targeting illegal immigrants, Arizona goes too far

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

IN ARIZONA, where the official malice directed at immigrants who came to the United States illegally is unsurpassed, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would criminalize every such immigrant just for being in the state. It's the latest attempt to harass, intimidate and hound the state's several hundred thousand undocumented residents.

Until now, only police departments that have entered into deals with the federal government have been empowered to arrest people on suspicion that they lack proper documentation. The bill, which is expected to clear the legislature in the near future, would broaden that authority and allow such arrests statewide by expanding the definition of trespassing to include the immigrants' mere presence in the state. (In Arizona, misdemeanor trespassing is punishable by up to six months in jail.) It would circumvent the Obama administration's policy of focusing enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes and who pose a danger to the community.

No other state has gone so far to usurp the federal government's authority over immigration enforcement, or to defy the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes the legislation because it would subvert police efforts to gain the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities.

Inevitably, the bill would mean more arrests based exclusively on factors such as skin color, accent and clothing. That doesn't seem to bother the bill's backers; nor does it bother them that the state's large population of legal U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin is likely to suffer from increased racial profiling if the legislation is enacted. Perhaps the Republican brand is already so tarnished among Hispanic Americans that more immigrant-bashing by the party will only confirm the party's image as one of hostility to the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group.

The Obama administration continues to insist it is serious about overhauling the nation's immigration laws, which among other benefits would furnish a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 12 million immigrants who came here illegally. But given the president's political travails and the competition of other legislative priorities, it's hard to see an immigration bill advancing in Congress anytime soon. Tragically, the result of that policy vacuum is likely to be ever more menacing measures targeting Hispanics, driving undocumented immigrants further into the shadows and making life miserable for U.S. citizens for the sin of their ethnic origin.

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