The law creates a suspect class, based in part on ethnicity, considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent. It makes it harder for illegal immigrants to live without scrutiny -- but it also makes it harder for some American citizens to live without suspicion and humiliation. Americans are not accustomed to the command "Your papers, please," however politely delivered. The distinctly American response to such a request would be "Go to hell," and then "See you in court."
The government of Arizona, it turns out, has been ambushed by its own Legislature. If this vague law is applied vigorously, the state will be regularly sued by citizens who are wrongfully stopped. But if the law is not applied vigorously enough, it contains a provision allowing citizens to sue any agency or official who "limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws." Either way, lawyers rejoice.
The Arizona law -- like others before it -- does have one virtue. It sorts Republicans according to their political and moral seriousness. By the mid-1990s, California had experienced an exponential growth in illegal immigration that strained public services. Gov. Pete Wilson responded by supporting Proposition 187, which denied schooling and non-emergency medical care to undocumented children and adults. Doctors and teachers were required to report anyone they suspected of being illegal immigrants.
The resulting debate revealed a gap in judgment. Wilson rode ethnically based resentment to re-election -- while alienating Latinos in large numbers, driving the statewide California Republican Party into irrelevance and earning the general contempt of history. Republican leaders such as Jack Kemp and then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas (not coincidentally, I worked for both men) fought the political current, opposed Proposition 187-like restrictions and gained in stature over time.
A similar test can be applied concerning the Arizona law. For the record, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas states, "There is no such thing" as being "American-looking." Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio says the law could "unreasonably single out people who are here legally." California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has come out against the Arizona law. Republicans wishing to gain some everlasting credit should join them.