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Shame on Arizona

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2010

If we really wanted immigration reform, we'd have had it years ago.

In 2006, President George W. Bush supported a proposal that would've required undocumented immigrants to take English classes and pay fines and back taxes in exchange for guest worker status and, eventually, citizenship. "I know this is an emotional debate," said Bush. "But one thing we cannot lose sight of is that we're talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect."

But Bush was shouted down by angry people carrying "Go back to Mexico!" signs. Their counter proposal? To somehow round up and bus an estimated 11 million people to the border, an idea that was to pragmatism and practicality as Lady Gaga is to modesty and restraint. Similar thinking, if you want to call it that, is evident in the bill recently signed into law by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, that has vaulted that state into a raging controversy.

The so-called Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act includes a provision empowering police officers to ask people they encounter for proof they are in this country legally if the officers have "reasonable suspicion" they are not. Which quite naturally raises the question of what constitutes reasonable suspicion; what cues might a person give that would make police think him illegal?

Only three suggest themselves: dark features, accented English or "hablando en espanol." Given that any number of native and naturalized Americans also fit that description, we face the troubling prospect of police approaching Hispanic citizens (or tourists!) and demanding their papers, an image you'd think belongs more to some totalitarian regime (think South Africa under apartheid or Poland under Nazi occupation) than to the USA.

Predictably, the new law has galvanized protesters around the country. Incredibly, one of the state's own congressmen, Democrat Raul Grijalva, has even called for a boycott. He told Politico.com, "If state lawmakers don't realize or don't care how detrimental this will be, we need to make them understand somehow."

But if the willingness or ability to understand existed, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Bush's reasonable proposal would have long ago been the law of the land.

Unfortunately for him and for all of us, he was unable to surmount one of the least attractive traits of the American character. Meaning a preference for responding to complicated questions with simplistic answers. Meaning a distaste for any remedy that requires more patience than the average microwave or that cannot be explicated on the average bumper sticker. Meaning a bias toward the angry, emphatic response, a native suspicion of anything that acknowledges complexity, thereby indicating weakness of purpose or softness of heart.

Meaning, metaphorically speaking, a tendency to use the meat cleaver for vascular surgery.

From this impulse we get debacles like the three strikes law that once sent a man to prison for 25 to life after he stole a slice of pizza, or the zero tolerance rules that got a girl kicked out of school for bringing Midol to class.

Now that impulse gives us this: an open invitation to ethnic profiling, an embarrassment to American ideals, an arguable violation of constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, and foolish politics, besides. Or does anyone believe the GOP's pathway to power lies in offending the nation's largest minority?

You know something is haywire when a congressman campaigns against his own state. But Grijalva is right. Until this shameful law is rescinded, Arizona is a great place not to be.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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