Commentary: A few questions for Arizona immigration law supporters

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Last week was a bad week 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.

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. In addition, Arizona-like laws could cripple the tourism industry of the states that adopt them: Many of the estimated 16 million Latin Americans traveling to the United States every year may decide to skip places where they fear they will be stopped by police because they speak Spanish.

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 an immigration system that welcomes legal immigrants and discourages illegal ones?

My opinion: I say the latter. Fortunately, I'm in good company: A New York Times/CBS News May 4 poll shows that while 51 percent of Americans support the Arizona law, 89 percent say the federal government needs to update existing immigration laws. Sixty-four percent say there should be a path to citizenship or temporary residency for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.

There is a much better -- and less traumatic -- way to solve this problem than Arizona's de facto racial profiling law: passing a comprehensive immigration law that secures the border, punishes employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, provides a path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants, and significantly increases the number of U.S. visas for workers the country needs.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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