Those of us who are old enough will never forget the images of fire hoses being turned on children marching for their civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama - or the police nightsticks of Bloody Sunday at the Raymond Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Those images stirred a nation to act against racial segregation in the 1960's. The draconian anti-immigrant bill that was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is likely to do the same when it comes to the crisis of our broken immigration system.
The Arizona of 2010 is the Alabama of 1963.
For those who have not read a paper or turned on the TV in the last several days, the new Arizona law requires that all police officers with a reasonable suspicion that an individual might not be in our country legally, must demand to see that person's papers.
It also requires that each person who has immigrated carry those papers at all times or be in violation of the law themselves.
It even creates a private right of action that allows anyone, from an ordinary citizen to the Minutemen, to file suit against individual law enforcement officers who they believe are refusing to enforce the new act.
The new law makes anyone with brown skin, anyone who looks like he might be from Eastern Europe, the Irish guy who works behind the bar at a pub, anyone with an accent - frankly anyone who looks the least bit like they might be an immigrant - subject to the demand: "Papers please."
That phrase -- "papers please" - is something that the authorities asked you in the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. It has never been something we ever expected to hear uttered in the United States of America. It is as un-American as jack boots. Unless this law is stopped, thousands of people - many of them perfectly legal American citizens - will begin to hear it regularly in the state of Arizona.
Let's be clear. In a free society people should never have to worry that the plainclothes police officer around the next corner has the right - even the obligation - to demand to see their papers simply because they have brown skin or are chatting with their friends in Spanish, or Polish, or Italian.
This moral outrage will create an enormous backlash that will badly damage the reputation and economy of the state of Arizona. It will profoundly wound the state's massive convention and tourism business. It will make Arizona a symbol of racial profiling and conflict. As the controversy over the law explodes across the country, organizations of all types are already canceling conferences and meetings, and families are changing their vacation plans. Arizona will soon become the butt of jokes on late night TV, and its leaders will join the ranks of Bull Connor and George Wallace as symbols of what is not best in America.
The new law will not only cost the state in tourist dollars and reputation. Law enforcement officials consider it a danger to public safety. When this bill goes into effect, what family with an undocumented member will now call the police to report any ordinary crime?
But ironically, the passage of this law may also serve as a wakeup call to people around the country who believe in fundamental American values. In the same way the excesses of Alabama's leaders helped pass the civil rights laws, so this un-American law may spur Congress to fix our profoundly broken immigration system.
The fact of the matter is that there are only three realistic choices when it comes to immigration:
- The status quo, where 12 million people live in the shadows of our society, and can be easily exploited by unscrupulous employers and used to undercut wages for every American - where everyday families are broken apart by immigration raids and the children of immigrants are denied the opportunity to go to college and contribute to our society.
- Un-American measures such as the one just passed in Arizona that betray our values and will never actually solve the problem. Of course, the bottom line is that our government is not going to round up twelve million undocumented immigrants, put them on trains, buses and airplanes, and ship them back to their countries of origin. Mass deportation of millions of workers and their families is a phony non-solution that is both impractical and un-American. It is not a politically, morally or economically acceptable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. As a practical matter it will never happen - and if it ever did, economists have estimated it would cost our economy 2.6 trillion dollars in gross domestic product over the next ten years.
- Comprehensive immigration reform that will strengthen the rule of law, level the playing field in the workplace, reduce illegal immigration to a trickle, and reward those who play by the rules. It would do so through a combination of smart and effective border enforcement, a crackdown on illegal hiring and unfair labor practices, modernizing the legal immigration system, and requiring those here illegally to register with the government, pass background checks, study English, pay taxes, and get in line to work towards citizenship.
On Friday, President Obama spoke out clearly against the new Arizona law and ordered his Administration to evaluate its legality. He also called once again for prompt action to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Senate Leader Harry Reid - a long-time advocate of immigration reform - has committed to bring it to the floor this summer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has welcomed the opportunity to put a bill on the floor of the House.
Immigration reform must have bi-partisan support to pass Congress. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham have agreed on a bi-partisan architecture for the Senate bill. Such a bi-partisan bill must be brought to the floor as soon as possible.
One faction of the Republican Party understands the importance of solving this problem - for the welfare of the country and in order to assure that Republicans can compete for votes among the growing Latino population in the future. They must be forced to distance themselves from the anti-immigrant Republicans who passed this bill in Arizona and the Republican Governor who signed it.
That of course includes Senator John McCain, who has historically been a strong backer of immigration reform, but who has decided to support this un-American law because he is embroiled in a hot Republican primary for re-election to his Arizona Senate seat. So much for mavericks with convictions.
Progressives across America need to step up and respond to this horrific action in Arizona in the same way that Progressives stood up to support the civil rights marchers in Alabama fifty years ago. Right now we can take action in three ways:
- Hold a vigil or some other event expressing your solidarity with the people of Arizona.
- Participate in the May 1st marches across America that will call on Congress to take action to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
- Call your Member of Congress today and join with the immigrant community in asking for action on immigration reform, now.
The overreaching of the anti-immigrant forces in Arizona has set the stage for action. It's up to us to make it happen. Enough! Immigration Reform Now.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.