I am saddened today at the prospect of a young Hispanic immigrant in Arizona going to the grocery store and forgetting to bring her passport and immigration documents with her. I cannot be dispassionate about the fact that the very act of her being in the grocery store will soon be a crime in the state she lives in. Or that, should a policeman hear her accent and form a "reasonable suspicion" that she is an illegal immigrant, she can -- and will -- be taken into custody until someone sorts it out, while her children are at home waiting for their dinner.
Equally disturbing is what will happen in the mind of the policeman. The police talk today about how they do not wish to, and will not, engage in racial profiling. Yet faced with the option of using common sense and compassion, or harassing a person who has done nothing wrong, a particularly sinister aspect of Arizona's new immigration law will be hanging over his head. He can be personally sued, by anyone, for failing to enforce this inhumane new act.
I recognize that Arizona has become a widening entry point for illegal immigration from the South. The wave has brought with it rising violence and drug smuggling.
But a solution that degrades innocent people, or that makes anyone with broken English a suspect, is not a solution. A solution that fails to distinguish between a young child coming over the border in search of his mother and a drug smuggler is not a solution.
I am not speaking from an ivory tower. I lived in the South Africa that has now thankfully faded into history, where a black man or woman could be grabbed off the street and thrown in jail for not having his or her documents on their person.
How far can this go? We lived it -- police waking a man up in the middle of the night and hauling him off to jail for not having his documents on his person while he slept. The fact that they were in his nightstand near the bed was not good enough.
Of course if you suggested such a possibility today to an Arizona policeman he would be adamant that he would never do such a thing. And I would believe him. Arizona is a long way from apartheid South Africa.
The problem is, under the new law, the one or two who would do it are legitimized. All they have to say is that they believed that illegal immigrants were being harbored in the house. They would be protected and sanctioned by this law.
Abominations such as apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here. They start with generalizing unwanted characteristics across an entire segment of a population. They start with trying to solve a problem by asserting superior force over a population. They start with stripping people of rights and dignity - such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty - that you yourself enjoy. Not because it is right, but because you can. And because somehow, you think this is going to solve a problem.
However, when you strip a man or a woman of their basic human rights, you strip them of their dignity in the eyes of their family and their community, and even in their own eyes. An immigrant who is charged with the crime of trespassing for simply being in a community without his papers on him is being told he is committing a crime by simply being. He or she feels degraded and feels they are of less worth than others of a different color skin. These are the seeds of resentment, hostilities and in extreme cases, conflict.
Such "solutions" solve nothing. As already pointed out, even by people on the police force, Arizona's new laws will split the communities, make it less likely that people in the immigrant communities will work with the police. They will create conditions favorable to the very criminals these laws are trying to disarm.
The Latinos in Arizona have not come to Arizona because they want to live in communities wracked with violence and crime. I would guess that the most recent arrivals have fled their border towns and the growing violence there as drug lords tightened their control of the communities. They want to live and raise their children in peace, just as you or I do.
I am certain that, given the chance, the leaders of the Latino immigrant communities in Arizona would enthusiastically work with the state to find constructive solutions to these problems. I am very sure that they would like, as much as others, to rid Arizona of the drug smugglers, human traffickers and other criminal elements infiltrating their communities.
We can only hope that this law will be thrown out of the courts in short order. I do not disagree with the calls to boycott the businesses in the state until it is turned around.
In the meantime, it has opened the door to some smart state leaders sitting down with the leaders of the Latino communities in Arizona and hammering out some solutions that actually work. Hopefully these solutions would recognize the difference between a drug smuggler and a man willing to stand outside a gas station in the hot sun for hours in the hopes that someone will give him some work for the day.
The problem of migrating populations is not going to go away any time soon. If anyone should know this, it should be Americans, many of whom landed here themselves to escape persecution, famine or conflict. With the eyes of the world now on them, Arizona has the opportunity to create a new model for dealing with the pitfalls, and help the nation as a whole find its way through the problems of illegal immigration. But to work, it must be a model that is based on a deep respect for the essential human rights Americans themselves have grown up enjoying.
This post has been cross-posted at TheCommunity.com.