Arizona has just passed the toughest anti-illegal immigrant law in the country -- but you have to wonder: Why now? Illegal immigration is down nationally from its high in 2000, with border apprehensions lower than they've been in 35 years. There are fewer illegal aliens in the U.S. today than there were just two years ago, from 2008 to 2009, 1.2 million illegal immigrants left. In Arizona alone, more than 100,000 illegal aliens have left the state over the last two years, and the number of illegal aliens caught trying to cross into Arizona has been down by almost 40 percent over the last three years. So why did politicians rush to enact a poorly drafted, arguably unconstitutional law at this moment?
The horrific murder of an Arizona rancher in March provided popular momentum for the legislation. A few days before his murder, Robert Krentz found large quantities of illegal drugs on his property and reported it to the police -- certainly motive for the vicious cartels that run drugs across the Mexican border to take a hit out on Krentz. Unfortunately, this one murder has led many people to believe that crime in Arizona is rampant and that illegal immigrants are the cause.
The problem with this theory is that actual crime statistics tell a different story. Crime in Arizona has consistently gone down over the last 15 years, even while illegal immigration was increasing. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show that the violent crime rate statewide in Arizona has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1995, and property crimes have followed the same pattern.
Violent crime rates -- including rape, murder and robbery -- haven't been this low since 1972, and Arizona's violent crime decreased at a faster rate than the national decline over the same period. More importantly, this decline in violent crime occurred during the very period that Arizona experienced a huge influx of illegal immigrants, with the Arizona border becoming the main source of illegal entry from Mexico in every year since 1998. Whatever other problems Arizonans have with illegal immigrants, they can't blame them for a non-existent rise in violent crime.
Still, according to the latest polls, it appears that some two-thirds of Arizonans support the new law. But, as with the misinformation about skyrocketing crime in the state, much of the information being bandied about on what's in the new law also happens to be wrong.
I can't count the times over the last week I've heard reporters and commentators say that the law simply allows police officers who have already stopped someone for a traffic violation or some other crime to require the person to produce proof of legal residence if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant. But the actual wording of the law says something quite different. It gives any state, county or local government official the right to demand documents from persons suspected of being illegal immigrants:
"For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person."
Apparently, immigrants aren't the only ones we should encourage to learn English; Arizona lawmakers should learn English, too. The syntax and grammar are so convoluted, it's difficult to parse the meaning.
The term "lawful contact," while not defined in the law, has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the broadest terms. In Terry v. Ohio, the court made clear that police officers have wide latitude to approach anyone and question them on suspicion of a crime -- which the Arizona law now defines as "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant.
The law says race or national origin can't be the sole factor constituting "reasonable suspicion," but it doesn't prohibit race or ethnicity from being (ital) one (ital) factor. As we've seen on affirmative action -- where race is claimed to be only one factor in giving preference to minority applicants -- it is, unfortunately, almost always the deciding factor. And the same thing will happen here.
The law will not likely pass constitutional muster, but the harm to the 1.5 million Hispanics who are legal residents of Arizona will not easily be forgotten. And politicians who decide to jump on this bandwagon are in for a bumpy ride.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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