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In Arizona, immigration creates another Tea Party moment

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.

Pretty soon this state will be dicey for blonds. Last week, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that allows the police to demand the papers of anyone reasonably suspected of being in the country illegally. Since this law is aimed at illegal immigrants from Mexico, the cops are almost certain to bend over backwards to avoid any suggestion of racial profiling and will, as a matter of fairness, stop and frisk the odd Scandinavian. Sven, don't let the sun set on you in this state.

I am not a blond, but I was once a redhead, and I sunburn to blinking neon orange. Even at some distance, it is clear that I am not Mexican, and so you would think that people like me are protected by the Incredible Power of White. But the Arizona law is so bizarre, fueled by anger and a dash of bigotry, that its effect is hard to predict. One thing is certain: Some cops will abuse their power -- such is human nature -- and the Hispanic minority will come to see the police as oppressors. History will repeat itself by moving west -- cactus instead of Spanish moss.

The law may seem absurd, but its harshness is no laughing matter. It has prompted widespread outrage from various politicians and civic leaders. And the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, has even likened it to "Nazism." This seems a bit extreme, since there was more to Nazism than merely stopping people on the street and demanding their identification documents. Still, the practice does bring to mind a certain Maj. Heinrich Strasser in the movie "Casablanca," who was in the habit of demanding "papers" from the likes of Paul Henreid, the Victor Laszlo character who managed to somehow escape a concentration camp in a Palm Beach suit. In fact, one of the splendid freedoms of America is to be free of "papers." All over the world, people carry papers saying who they are and where they belong and often revealing their religion or ethnicity as well. Not here. No papers.

No doubt, Arizona has a problem. The state (population 6,595,778) has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants. It also has a porous border with Mexico, and there is an understandable nervousness over the drug-fueled mayhem that is taking place in that country almost daily, some of it spilling into Arizona (a rancher was recently murdered). The people of this state are not totally crazy. They are merely misguided and scared. An amazing 70 percent of them support the new law.

At the moment, the law amounts to a full-employment program for legal scholars. It is so constitutionally dubious that it may not make it to its own birth, some 90 days hence. Among other things, it encourages racial profiling, absconds with federal prerogatives regarding immigration, and will prove both impractical and onerous to enforce. (What if most Hispanics refuse to carry documents? Will they all be detained -- legal and illegal alike?)

President Obama immediately denounced the law, and Democrats have clamored to curry favor with the Hispanic vote by moving up immigration reform on the congressional agenda. Indeed, the law is so hard to defend that Sen. John McCain, facing a hard-right primary challenge from a supporter of the measure, spoke a few words of praise but nevertheless could not bring himself to cheer the new police powers. On local TV here, he mumbled words of furrowed ambivalence. There was a better way of dealing with the problem, he said.

Indeed there is. But the Obama administration had better pay attention to the conditions that produced this law. In a way, another Tea Party movement has emerged -- a scream of pain and anger from a constituency that has seen immigration laws turn meaningless and the impotence of the government flaunted on a daily basis. These are people who didn't have a particularly high regard for Washington in the first place. This is the Anglos' last stand.

The sun this time of the year has not yet been set on broil, and the sky is a criminal blue. The weather is marvelous, and the charms of this state lure us here for yet another family sojourn. But I am apprehensive about next year, when my drop-dead, non-Hispanic looks -- hair of shimmering white, skin long ago adapted to the dismal Polish winter -- will mark me as a target for cops seeking to show that they don't engage in racial profiling. If asked for my papers, I'll have a one-word response:

Florida.

cohenr@washpost.com


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