I had a physics teacher during my senior year of high school, Mr. Miller. His classroom was a riot of posters. “186,000 miles per second. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” “ Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” “Black holes suck.” These pearls of wisdom were accompanied with various toys and other objects that he used to demonstrate whatever physics principle he was teaching at any given time. He had (or has, hopefully) a wry sense of humor that made him a popular and effective teacher. One bit that he would regularly work into his lectures was the multiple choice question. It went something like this:
“Mr. Viertel, Newton’s third law is:
A: An object at motion or at rest will stay that way until acted upon by another force.
B: Force equals mass times acceleration.
C: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Now, in this case, I would know for sure that the correct answer was C. It was, however, not always the case. I can assure you that I am not writing this blog as a side enterprise to my brilliant career as a physicist. But even when I didn’t know the right answer, I knew the answer that was definitely wrong. (And if you’re wondering, the obviously wrong answer was always Bakersfield. Why Bakersfield? I have no idea.)
Now Mr. Miller did not have the monopoly on inserting obviously wrong answers into multiple choice questions. It’s pretty common to have three or four choices and be able to immediately eliminate one or more of them and then mull over the remaining ones. Sometimes, many times, we know the one choice that’s wrong before we know what choice is right.
With that thought in mind, we come to a topic that is boring and lacks any controversy whatsoever: immigration.
Of course, I’m writing this in reference to Arizona’s new immigration law. This recently-passed law, according to the New York Times “requires police officers, ‘when practicable,’ to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials” and makes it a misdemeanor to not carry immigration papers on any public or private property in the entire state. Beyond police, it requires every state and local government agency to verify the status of anyone they lawfully contact and have “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country illegally. The law gives individuals the right to sue any such agency if they believe said agency is not enforcing federal or state immigration law.
At this point, it is hardly news that this has met with significant controversy. Jim Wallis of Sojourners has documented the response of faith communities in Arizona who find their ability to minister to people who may be illegal immigrants compromised. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles has called the ability of an authority figure to demand papers as being reminiscent of Nazism. Wallis is known as a progressive, but Mahoney is not really known for such extreme language. In an uncommon presidential statement about a state law, President Obama, set the stage for a summer debate on comprehensive immigration reform by saying that the Arizona law could “undermine the basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities….”
So what do we do about illegal immigration? Part of the genesis of the Arizona law is a perceived notion that Washington has been ineffective at protecting our borders. But make no mistake about it. This law also has racist roots. The language in the bill was heavily influenced by a man named Kris Kobach who has ties to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
It should come as no surprise that I write as an opponent of this law. I’ll get to my reasons for this position later in this post, but, I want to start by laying a little bit of a foundation for it. Illegal immigration is a complex issue that we, as a nation, need to address. I’m certainly no expert on the matter, but I know a few things.
First, I want to go back to something that I learned in my first political science class back in college. There are three elements that must exist to govern a nation-state. The first is authority. The government must have the power to enforce its laws. The second is legitimacy. Enough people must accept that the government deserves its authority for the government to exercise that authority. The third is sovereignty. The government must have control of its geographic territory. This is obviously oversimplified, as the three elements must balance one another. The manner in which that balance is achieved can influence the character of the individual elements and of the nation-state itself. My point in glancing down this particular road is that there are two of the three elements at play here.
The lunatic fringe aside (yes, I’m talking about birthers), there is no serious question about the legitimacy of either the U.S. or the Arizona government. Likewise, while there are questions about the constitutionality of the law, there is no serious question about the legislative process by which the law has been enacted. So legitimacy does not play into the equation. Authority does come into question in that the ability (or willingness) of the Federal government to enforce existing immigration law is in question, thus leading states to act, albeit wrong-headedly in the case of Arizona.
Sovereignty, however, is the real question. For the United States to function as a nation-state, it is necessary for us to control our borders. That is a simple fact. It is not good or evil or liberal or conservative. It just is. In much of life, the facts matter less than how we respond to them. Such is the case when it comes to immigration. There are very good reasons for getting a handle on immigration, and they are not based on racism or nativism.
The fact is that undocumented immigrants, all 11-12 million of them in the United States, are people. Some bring trouble. Most want to live their lives just like everyone else. The problem is that they can’t live their lives like everyone else. They can’t demand a minimum wage from an employer or even demand justice when that employer shorts their pay. They will be more reluctant to call the police when they need them. This makes them more vulnerable than you or me to crime, or worse, falling into a life of crime.
But, they’re illegals so they’re already criminals!
I’ve discussed this issue a few times already (in other venues), and that is the cry of those supporting the Arizona law. All I can say to that is that it would be really nice if the world were that simple. But we all know that it’s not. Should people be sneaking over the border? Of course they shouldn’t. But, what do you do with the 15 year-old who was carried across the border in the dead of night in her mother’s arms as a baby? Is she a criminal? What if that 15 year-old’s parents are illegal but she was born here? Do we kick her out of the only country she’s ever known? Do we break up her family? Should we really raid workplaces and leave small children stranded at school or daycare wondering when or if mommy and daddy will come get them?
These are human beings, and it must be reflected in our policy. Do we attack the market for these workers by cracking down on employers? Do we try to help the countries they come from out of mass poverty? Do we reevaluate our drug policies to see if we can’t do something about the drug war that is sending combatants and refugees alike into our border communities? Do we issue a green card to anyone who asks for it if they aren’t violent criminals or involved in the drug trade to prop up the wages that create demand for illegal immigrant labor?
I don’t know the right answer, but I know the wrong one.
I have a good friend, a lifelong friend who is Latino. As we approached adulthood, I got my driver’s license and we would go driving around in my [parents’] car, just doing the things kids do. We stayed out of trouble and never attracted the attention of police. Now, my friend didn’t really want a driver’s license. He had his school ID, but he didn’t get a state ID until he had to for work and such. Sometimes he didn’t even bring his wallet. There was no need. He wasn’t driving. We weren’t going anyplace that demanded ID for entry. Now, under the Arizona law, if we did get pulled over and if the officer decided that there was “reasonable suspicion” that my friend might be an illegal immigrant, he would not have been able to prove otherwise. I would have gotten a ticket and he would have been arrested. The thing is he was born in the United States. He’s just as much a U.S. citizen as I am.
Putting aside, for a moment, the question of what constitutes “reasonable suspicion,” we come to the fundamental problem of SB 1070. It turns the presumption of innocence on its head. At the moment that a police officer decides that he or she has a reasonable suspicion that a person is illegal, that person is assumed to be guilty and must prove their innocence, their legal status, or face arrest. Moreover, it makes the very inability to prove one’s innocence at a given moment in time a crime in and of itself. Does that seem problematic to anyone else? It should.
Returning to the question of reasonable suspicion, what would make a police officer suspicious that someone is an illegal immigrant? Brown skin? A Spanish accent? A Spanish language newspaper or radio station? I can tell you this. I grew up in the city of Los Angeles, living there for 23 years before moving to Seattle. So I’ve spent my entire life living in diverse communities in Border States. In nearly 37 years, I have known of exactly one person who I knew was working illegally. I will say nothing more about this individual except that a police officer would not have reasonable suspicion of their illegal status. But I know quite a few Americans who, were they living in Arizona under the new law, would probably be very reluctant to leave home without their papers. I just don’t see how this law can not lead to racial profiling.
If SB 1070 is bad, how do we approach immigration policy? Again, I don’t know the right answer, but I know that we need to seek an answer. Sometimes, when we seek an answer, it’s important to think about our values, about who we are. As a Christian, I need to look to scripture, to my faith tradition, for guidance. This 2006 Seattle P-I editorial makes some very good points on the matter. Of course, using religion in a debate about secular policy brings me back to the dilemma that I wrote about in January. Even if I hold a public policy position based on my personal faith, my belief in separation church and state dictates that I must argue that point from a secular position.
Well, I can go back to my own roots. On my dad’s side of the family, I am a first generation American. My father was born in Vienna, Austria in 1925 and came to the United States in 1928 to join his parents in Hollywood where they were working in the movie industry. He was a little young to remember it, but he sailed into New York harbor past a certain statue, a statue that became a symbol of hope for a nation of immigrants. Inside the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands, there is a tablet inscribed with this poem.
By Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Of course Lady Liberty is a statue, a symbol but she’s a symbol that embodies what we say our nation is about. Were she a real person, would she smile? Would she feel pride at the passage of SB 1070? A symbol can’t craft policy, but it can remind us who we are.
As we engage in this debate over immigration, I have to ask the question. When we invoke Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a shining city on a hill, what is it that makes it shine? Who are we America? What do we, as a nation aspire to? What are the best ideals by which we define ourselves? What makes us shine, America? Glaring searchlights? The icy gleam of floodlight-illumined razor wire? Spot lights from watchtowers high atop reinforced concrete walls? Or is it a welcoming beam of light cutting through the storm of poverty, of fear, of tyrannical oppression; a lamp lifted beside a golden door?