This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Arizona’s new attempt to crack down on illegal immigration is nasty, brutish and probably unconstitutional. It’s also understandable.
The state’s week-old law makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally and directs police to question suspected aliens about their immigration status. It’s hard to see how this law could possibly be enforced without harassing American citizens with brown skin and Spanish surnames – some of whose families were living in Arizona long before statehood.
From this northern latitude, the policy looks incomprehensibly extreme and harsh. It’s more comprehensible when seen as an angry reaction to Congress’ shameful refusal to do something serious about illegal immigration.
Arizona is probably the state that has suffered most from that failure. Nearly half of all arrests of illegal border-crossers in the nation occur on its frontier with Mexico. Vast quantities of drugs are smuggled across that border: Federal agents there seize roughly 1.5 tons a day of marijuana alone.
With the drugs come criminals, who follow the same corridors that peaceful job-seekers do. Arizona police departments are getting slammed. Phoenix’ rate of kidnappings – roughly one a day – is surpassed only by Mexico City’s. Most of these kidnappings, and related crimes of violence, are committed by people in the country illegally. Mexico’s narco-warfare also spills across the border.
The great majority of the state’s 460,000 illegal residents are not violent, of course, but their sheer number creates immense burdens for hospital emergency rooms, schools and social services. It is not reasonable to expect one state to pay so much for congressional neglect of a national problem.
Arizona should have found a less draconian way of lashing out: Its real quarrel is with federal lawmakers, not job-hungry Latinos seeking their fortunes in a wealthy country they can enter so easily. Were there as much wealth on the south side of the border and as much poverty on the north, the river of destitute migrants would be flowing that way instead of this.
The remedy is some version of “comprehensive” immigration reform. That means enough hard-nosed enforcement to squeeze off illegal migration; it also means dealing humanely with illegal aliens who have roots in the United States and no criminal records beyond their border violations.
Some in Congress have attempted this, but they’ve always runs afoul of business interests that want to preserve low-wage labor, libertarians who oppose any kind of reliable ID system to prevent illegal hiring, and politicians who see illegal immigration as a wedge issue to be exploited, not a massive social problem to be solved.
Bad as Arizona’s law is, it might – might – serve a useful purpose by forcing Congress to get serious about the issue. The discouraging partisan posturing it has already provoked in Washington, D.C., suggests that real reform in an election year is probably a lost cause. But somebody in the capital must be figuring out that a genuine federal solution, maybe in 2011, beats what’s happening in Arizona right now.