For the past several years, Maricopa County in Arizona has been America’s best-local-effort approximation of a police state. That’s where Sheriff Joe Arpaio rules, where he made his fame imprisoning inmates in tents in the heat of the Arizona desert and issued them pink underwear to humiliate them, where he imprisoned children as young as 12, supposedly with their consent, to teach them lessons, and where he set loose vigilante posses without badges but with arrest powers.
Maricopa County is also where Arpaio began redrawing the rules of immigration by flouting federal law and becoming a one-man, one-county anti-immigration czar. He profiles brown-skinned immigrants without reserve, rounds them up by the truckload, forces his “aliens” to sing “God Bless America,” and keeps them in his jails for extra indoctrination instead of turning them over to federal authorities, as law requires. Arpaio is an enforcer, but not of law. I wrote three years ago that if the federal government didn’t reform immigration soon, Maricopa County would soon be the bleak future of immigration enforcement for the rest of Arizona and other states with big, brown-skinned populations.
That future is here.
On April 23, Arizona Governor Janice Brewer signed into law the most draconian anti-immigration measure in the country since 1924. That year the xenophobic Asian Exclusion Act barred Asians (including Indians) from migrating to the United States. The exclusion act was a precursor to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps during World War II, a slice of Stalinist subjugation not unique in American history. There’s no telling what Arizona’s so-called “Safe Neighborhoods” act will lead to. Whatever it is, the demonization of an entire race in law can’t have good consequences.
The law turns state and local police into immigration cops even though the Constitution explicitly spells out in Article 1 that Congress alone has the authority to set a “uniform Rule of Naturalization.” Right-wingers who pushed for this law talk a good game of wanting to “restore” respect for the Constitution when they have Barack Obama’s even darker skin in their sights. But they wouldn’t recognize hypocrisy if it bit them in the Arizona.
For the first time in the United States, cops in Arizona have the right to demand that anyone produce identification to prove legal residence. What has been a habit of several European nations and every authoritarian regime on the planet is now Arizona law. Again, conservatives who pretend to want government off their back have just surrendered to one of the most invasive forms of arbitrary state power. Profiling will replace the saguaro cactus blossom as the state flower. Legal residents and citizens will be caught in the same dragnet of overzealous cops scoring their anti-immigration jollies. And the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable searches, the Fifth requiring due process and protecting against self-incrimination, the Sixth protecting the rights of the accused, the Eighth protecting against cruel and unusual punishment (if you’re in Joe Arpaio country) and the 14th providing equal protecting — they’re all history in Arizona’s Dirty Harry act over brown neighbors.
Arizona’s law won’t stem undocumented immigration. The country’s economic crisis did that already, worsening rather than helping the economy: immigrants, legal or not, are more boon than burden. It’s been so historically, in the roaring 1990s especially. The legal status of an immigrant doesn’t trump his contributions to the country, even less so his dignity. But this isn’t a law to reduce undocumented immigration. It’s a tool to exclude, segregate or punish brown-skinned immigrants, legal or non-legal. It’s a reaction against the diminishing whiteness of a country that will be minority-white within 40 years, in a region where whites will lose their dominant perch even sooner.
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We’ve been here before. Listen to Walt Whitman, of all people, decrying in an 1846 editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the contamination with Mexicans of the white race on the North American continent: “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race? Be it ours to achieve that mission!”
In a speech from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives almost a century later, Texas Congressman John Box displayed American nativism at its shrillest when he declared that “Every reason which calls for the exclusion of the most wretched, ignorant, dirty, diseased, and degraded people of Europe or Asia demands that the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico be stopped at the border.”
How different are the words of such eminent Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries from those of the Arizona governor in the 21st, when she declared a few days ago that “we cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north”?
The pretext in Whitman’s time was the cleanliness of the race. In John Box’s time it was the protection of America’s white “stock.” Later it would be about protecting jobs. Now it’s supposedly about protecting America from drugs and terrorists. But it’s the same old yellow-horde, yellow-peril racism of the Exclusion Act, smeared brown.
Sixteen years ago California voters approved Proposition 187 by the respectably mobbish margin of 59 percent. The new law was milder than Arizona’s. It didn’t give cops profiling powers. But it authorized them to check into an individual’s immigration status after any arrest for any violation, jaywalking or a broken tail-light included. It barred undocumented immigrants from receiving any social services whatever, including public education–specified in the prohibitions–and all but emergency medical services. It turned social workers into snitches who could finger for imprisonment any suspected undocumented person who filled out government applications.
Proposition 187 was mean-spirited and regressive, although not, in light of history, quite un-American. Courts struck it down.
Arizona’s parody of an immigration law is far broader in scope and enforcement. Courts will strike it down. That’s a given, if the Constitution is still English to Arizona. What courts can’t strike down is the viral bigotry that made Arizona’s law possible. That virus has long ago crossed Arizona’s borders into the rest of America. Its carrier is as white as a bed sheet and as legal as your next-door neighbor. It is also by far the greater threat to America’s character than anything that ever crossed the Rio Grande.