Arizona Senate Bill 1070 gives law enforcement officers the right to stop, question, arrest and detain any person they suspect is in the United States illegally. What gives rise to such suspicion? Give the climate and the content in which the law has been passed, it might well be called the "detain suspected Mexicans" legislation. Few of us should get comfortable, though, thinking the legislation targets Mexican Americans and not others. Giving law enforcement the right to stop based on suspicion is a license to harass folks who are "other", and that may include African Americans and other brown people.
It isn't likely that white folks are likely to be stopped, though perhaps they ought to be. Whites who come to or stay in the United States illegally usually get a pass. They can be white South Africans, Europeans, or even Canadians who come here for one purpose and stay for another. Because they look just like that which is perceived to be "normal" they don't ignite suspicion. And yet a third or fourth generation Mexican American, born here, just might.
The Arizona legislation is wrong, and it is a result of that state's frustration from absorbing so many undocumented people and paying money to provide them with services. It is the xenophobic outcome of racial fears combined with a recession that has shaken some families' economic basis to its core. There are millions who wonder "what about me" when they see undocumented people working, "what about me" when they see them in hospital waiting rooms. It is this "what about me" mentality that fueled the phobias that passed California's Proposition 187. It is this same "what about me" phobia that has pushed immigration reform legislation to the right in the United States Senate.
The law now under consideration would make us the equivalent of South African with a passbook. We would all be required, as workers, to have a new Social Security card that is connected to our fingerprints. They don't go so far as to say we should wear it on a chain around our neck, but this new card, with all of our identity metrics attached to it, would be necessary to secure our citizenship rights, and important to denying the rights of others.
President Obama promised immigration reform when he ran for office in 2008. His plate has certainly been full since his election, with health care reform, economic meltdown, and financial services reform. He is letting a key constituency down, though, by not weighing in on immigration reform. He is, clearly, a conciliator, but as we learned with health care reform, the right legislation will not be passed until and unless he gets his hands dirty by entering the fray, sharing opinions and twisting arms.
I am not sure what immigration reform should look like, and I am aware that current sentiment precludes a blanket amnesty for those Mexican illegal immigrants who are already here. I am aware, too, of heartbreaking facts - that parents are deported while their children, legal citizens, remain here, with families utterly disrupted because of the law; that brilliant students can't get a speck of federal financial aid to attend college even though they have graduated from US high schools if they are undocumented; that we might all die from scurvy or some other such vegetable-deficient disease if Mexican immigrants did not work in agriculture in the United States; that these folks who cross borders are our brothers and sisters who might rather stay home but for the harsh features of our global economy; that those folks who cross borders come here, often, to be exploited and have their immigration status held against them in the workplace.
On Saturday May 1, all over the country, people turned out to rallies to protest not only the Arizona legislation but also the way that immigrant workers are treated. I was in St. Louis on Saturday, with a group of United Methodist Women, who thronged to a rally, led by Harriet Olsen, a woman of great grace and spirit. In an insightful talk to the Methodist women, she used Christian principles as the context for dealing with immigration issues. Instead of bringing her talk to a rousing close, she closed by asking women to group in dialogue to address what they might do about this issue of injustice, and others.
Senator John McCain from Arizona had been an advocate of immigration reform until he realized that he might face a tight election with a Tea Party-type opponent from his own party. I'm not surprised that he has placed self-interest over justice. Perhaps men and women of spirit and conscience, folks like Harriet Olsen, should be brought to the table to help shape immigration reform legislation. Until then, we had all (except white folks) better watch out because it is clear that suspicion of racial identity is enough to get one stopped, questioned, arrested, or detained in the name of law.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.