Arizona’s law backers should pause

Last week was a bad one for those of us opposing Arizona’s anti-immigration law: New polls show that a huge majority of Americans support the legislation, and key candidates for November’s mid-term elections are now saying they want similar laws for their own states.

Three separate polls — from the Pew Research Center, The Wall Street Journal-NBC and McClatchy-Ipsos — show that about 60 percent of Americans support the Arizona law, which requires local police to question people about their immigration status when they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are not in the country legally.

Public sentiment

There’s no question that the polls show a clear public sentiment that something has to be done to stop the steady flow of migrants. But I would like to ask six questions to supporters of the Arizona law, and to politicians who are considering similar legislation in 16 other states:

1: Are you aware that the Arizona law turns every Hispanic in Arizona, including U.S. citizens, into a potential suspect? Do you like the idea of police stopping members of the largest U.S. minority group because of the color of their skin, or their Spanish accent?

Granted, the Arizona law was recently amended to demand that police engage in the “lawful stop, detention or arrest” of people before inquiring about their immigration status. Supporters of the law say this means police can only stop people in connection with other crimes. But, in reality, “lawful stop” can mean many things, including stopping a person to ask whether they saw something suspicious around the corner.

2: Do you know that the stated reason for the Arizona law — a wave of crime brought about by undocumented migrants — is not backed by the state’s official statistics?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime in Arizona fell from 531 to 447 people per 100,000 inhabitants over the eight years ending in 2008. Nationwide, while the nation’s illegal-immigrant population doubled from 1994 to 2004, the violent-crime rate declined 35 percent, the Arizona Republic reported May 2.

3: Do you know that the Arizona Police Chiefs Association opposes the law, saying it will drain the state’s law enforcement resources? In addition, undocumented migrants will think twice before giving police tips on crimes or terrorist plots, or before they rescue somebody from a car accident, it says.

4: Are you aware that Los Angeles and several other U.S. cities have voted to boycott Arizona? Arizona’s tourism board said last week that the boycotts have cost the financially ailing state $90 million already. Arizona-like laws could cripple the tourism industry of the states that adopt them.

5: Do you know that the reason so many migrants enter the United States illegally is because they can’t get in legally? Under the dysfunctional current U.S. immigration system, the U.S. labor market employs up to 500,000 low-skilled workers a year, but the U.S. government only gives 5,000 permanent legal visas a year in that category.

6: Even if you support the Arizona law, is it worth turning the country into a quasi police state, making every member of its largest minority group a suspected criminal, and losing billions of dollars in legal costs and boycotts? Or would it make more sense to update the country’s immigration laws, creating a system that welcomes legal immigrants and discourages illegal ones?

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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