On Monday, Matt Lauer of "Today" interviewed Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff who's made a national name for himself cracking down on illegal immigration. Lauer noted that Arizona's new immigration bill has the support of 70 percent of Arizonans. "But get this," Lauer added, "53 percent of those same people said they worry it could lead to civil rights violations."
Lauer and other commentators seem to think that there's something of a contradiction here. I don't see it, perhaps because it describes my own position so well. I support the Arizona law, but I'm also worried that it could lead to civil rights abuses.
It seems that whenever government expands either its powers or its enforcement efforts, you should be worried that it could go too far. But such worries have to be balanced against necessity.
I agree that there's something ugly about the police, even local police, asking citizens for their "papers" (there's nothing particularly ugly about asking illegal immigrants for their papers, though). There's also something ugly about American citizens being physically searched at airports. There's something ugly about IRS agents prying into nearly all of your personal financial transactions or, thanks to the passage of ObamaCare, serving as health insurance enforcers.
In other words, there are many government functions that are unappealing to one extent or another. That is not in itself an argument against them. The Patriot Act was ugly -- and necessary.
Consider California's decision to "lead by example" on global warming. Environmentalists argued that Washington was negligent in fighting climate change at the federal level. Hence California had no choice but to tackle a national problem at the state level. California implemented standards that are considerably more strict than those required (for now) by Washington.
Arizona's law is more humble than that. While California pushed a stricter standard than the one Washington was enforcing, Arizona seeks to enforce the federal law that Washington isn't enforcing.
The constitutional and legal issues make the parallel less than perfect, but the principle remains the same. Indeed, I'd wager that the costs of illegal immigration -- economic, social and environmental -- on Arizona dwarf the costs on California from global warming, at least so far.