Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s signing of a controversial new immigration law ignited a ferocious debate predictably dominated by rhetorical hysteria. Roger Car- dinal Mahony, the Catholic arch- bishop of Los Angeles, said the new law entails “reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation.”
Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, referred to it as one example of many “outbreaks of nativist apoplexy” and compared all those who support it to conspiracy-obsessed “birthers” who demand to see evidence of President Obama’s citizenship. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann claimed the law will “turn Arizona into a virtual police state” and encouraged a nationwide boycott of it. Former Arizona Gov. and current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ruefully called it “a shame.”
The issue of immigration is necessarily a tempestuous one since it revolves around a nexus of sensitive concerns: security, race and the character of American citizenship. It is impossible to even raise the issue of security without also introducing the question of whose security from whom - our protection from potentially dangerous illegal immigrants requires that principles of national inclusion and exclusion be articulated. This means that the pressing question of national security invites the volatile partisanship that often comes with racial politics, but also provides an opportunity to address the only genuinely legitimate issue of identity politics, that is, the question of what properly constitutes American identity.
It is a testament to the delicate nature of the debate that the most pressing and pragmatically solvable problem - the securing of our frighteningly porous borders - has been forestalled by the complications that attach to race and character. Every reasonably astute observer seems to concede that the United States has both the resources and the general know-how to stop the constant incursion of illegal immigrants across our borders. Likewise, everyone also seems to concede that decisively addressing our permeable territorial lines is a precondition for whatever comprehensive national policy is eventually adopted. Our failure not only to fashion a plan but to sanely address this predicament can only be attributed to a lack of political will in the face of the demands of political correctness. There is nothing Mr. Obama could do that would more powerfully justify his claim to be the first post-racial president than resolutely craft a new national policy on immigration.
The centrality of race can easily be detected in the only objection detractors of the new law seem to consistently forward - as Ms. Napolitano put it: “I think it could certainly invite racial profiling.” Her objection - and Mr. Olbermann’s, for that matter - is not based on a constitutional argument for the proper province of federal versus state power. Neither one of them is known as an ardent champion of states’ rights. Their objection seems to be that the law necessarily entails a consideration of ethnicity in the enforcement of law. However, the crux of any immigration policy, American and otherwise, has historically always involved some consideration of ethnicity insofar as it is tied to a determination of national origin. Even after the Immigration Act of 1965 ended the long-standing system of national-origins quotas, it still included some principles of national preference (e.g., for refugees of Communist nations).
In the context of Arizona, the deluge of illegal immigration specifically comes from the only foreign nation it shares a border with - Mexico. One might reasonably object to the new Arizona law on the grounds that it explicitly forbids all instances of racial profiling despite the fact that the very nature of the crime in question, the illegal entry into Arizona from a Hispanic country, makes ethnicity a factor in its detection and prosecution. To ban any and all considerations of even the most innocuous considerations of ethnicity seems tantamount to a criminalization of prudent policing. Just as no serious advocate of the new law argues that Poles are more deserving of a presumption of innocence than Mexicans, no serious participant in the debate argues that containing illegal immigration from Poland is as exigent a concern as containing illegal immigration from Mexico.
Despite the demonization of Arizona as a bastion of benighted racism, the average resident of Phoenix is considerably more receptive to legal immigration than the average U.S. citizen. According to a 2006 Pew Research survey, 26 percent of Phoenix residents were in favor of increased legal immigration, compared to 17 percent of Americans at large. Furthermore, only 30 percent of the Phoenix population wants to see legal immigration reduced (versus 40 percent nationally), and 46 percent of those polled in Phoenix said that illegal immigration constitutes more of a burden than a boon to the state (in contrast to 52 percent nationally). Despite increasingly widespread caricature, the typical Arizonan is far more tolerant of both immigration and Hispanics than the typical American but also far more concerned about the potential risks that come from vast stretches of unsecured borders.
It is hard not to sympathize with Mrs. Brewer since Arizona truly suffers in the absence of any coherent and enforceable federal immigration law. As she said after signing the new law, “We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act. But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.” From one perspective, Arizona’s initiative is a perfect example of American federalism in action - in response to the lack of competence or will on the part of a dithering federal government to provide an adequate solution, Arizona has opted to self-sufficiently manage its own problems. It is almost an act of political cruelty to indignantly expect that they continue to suffer in expectation of a comprehensive national law no one thinks is forthcoming anytime soon.
However, the deepest and most important issue that underlines the current imbroglio is what precisely it means to be an American citizen. Of course, this issue is too broad and of too much national significance to be left to the legal determinations of Arizona, or any other individual state. Millions of foreigners pine not merely to work or reside in America but to become Americans and any sensible immigration policy - one that ultimately forwards our national interests - has to reflect the demands of American citizenship and the process of assimilation. It should also address the alarming prospect that our current bureaucratically entangled approach often makes illegal immigration seem more attractive than the available legal avenues, that it doesn’t meet the demands of our labor market or encourage assimilation into American culture, and that more and more, those who legally enter the U.S. as permanent residents increasingly opt to avoid full-fledged citizenship. In other words, our present system, or lack thereof, is neither based on a clear understanding of what our interests as Americans are or what it means to be an American.
Since any candid debate over immigration includes a reflection of what is special and peculiar about American identity, it is impossible to engage the issue without stoking some intimation of national pride, or exciting some sense of our own exceptionalism. Much of the overwrought sensitivity about race is a function of a tension between a healthy appreciation of exceptionalism and an unhealthy obsession with it. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that America is a “nation with the soul of a church,” whose foundation in certain basic ideas that transcend nationality and race make it a “home for the homeless.” Part of our greatness as a nation is precisely this openness, and so the real shame, in contradistinction to Ms. Napolitano’s view, would be a failure to maintain it without compromising the other equally necessary components of American identity. A truly post-racial immigration policy would acknowledge the importance of nationality and ethnicity to the issue, but also the many ways in which the core of American identity both includes and transcends these distinctions. It is far too much to ask that Arizona complete this difficult and necessary task for the nation at large, but far too little to expect that it would ignore its own security while Washington neglects it.
Ivan Kenneally is an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.