Arizona's Un-American Immigration Law

How the state's harsh new law undermines American exceptionalism


If universal health coverage was part of the longstanding liberal agenda to implement a European-style welfare state in America, Arizona's tough new anti-immigrant law represents the conservative agenda to install a European-style surveillance state. Indeed, the very same conservatives who could not find words strong enough to condemn the Europeanization of America under ObamaCare are now greeting the Arizona law—which will require residents to prove their lawful status to authorities on demand—with a cheerful smile and a shrug.

The two efforts together will nix any notion of American exceptionalism—the idea that America has a special relationship with Lady Liberty that no other country enjoys. Therefore some things that are permissible in other countries are simply not kosher here. (Is kosher still a permissible word for the English-only crowd?)

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, less than two months ago lambasted American liberals for trying to use their unprecedented power after the 2008 elections to "bring the U.S. into line … with Europe's nationalized health insurance and carbon rationing." But now the Arizona Republican establishment's effort to foist a German-style "your papers, please" immigration policy on its residents perturbs him not one bit. In fact, speculates Lowry, "Hitler would be crestfallen" that he is being compared to Arizona's wimpy approach.

Meanwhile, my dear friend and Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who worried endlessly about how ObamaCare would turn America into a high-tax, big welfare-state country, is resolutely blasé about the intrusive scope of the Arizona law because supposedly it just won't apply to too many people. "Will a few people get stopped perhaps because some policeman has reasonable suspicion that a person is illegal? Yes. That is the huge horrible civil rights violation that's going to occur five times or eight times or 13 times in Arizona," he scoffed on Fox News recently. If that's all that the law will do, then what is the point of it, dear Bill, given that there are nearly half a million undocumented workers in Arizona?

What's particularly distressing about Bill's position is that, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who he has long supported, it represents an about-face from his previous advocacy of sensible immigration reform based not on enforcement but addressing the root cause of the large illegal population: lack of legal avenues for unskilled aliens to enter the U.S. Indeed they both have now moved to the right of Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has long regarded chasing illegals out of the country as his God-given duty. But even he has expressed qualms about the potential for racial profiling under the Arizona law.

And then, of course, there is the King of Conservative Neo-Know-Nothings, Rush Limbaugh, who never misses an opportunity to inveigh against the creeping Europeanization under Obama. But he actively calls for imitating the Europeans on immigration now:

These are the enlightened souls that we are supposed to be like: The French, the Germans, the Swiss, even the Spanish. But the thing is they have no trouble whatsoever kicking out their illegal aliens. Aren't we constantly told that they are so much more enlightened than us in every way that we need to emulate them in all things, like providing universal health care and so forth? Yet we're not emulating them on immigration.

But what Limbaugh doesn't tell his listeners is that in reality these countries are doing a far more effective job of controlling their citizens than their borders—exactly what will happen in the United States if the Arizona law is replicated or federalized. Indeed, given that the overwhelming majority of undocumented workers are here because some American employer or family member wants them to be, there is no way to clamp down on them without imposing a vast, repressive state on American citizens that criminalizes ever-increasing spheres of life.

Arizona businesses have lived in fear of workplace immigration raids since a state law three years ago banned anyone from "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants. Now the new law will extend the same intrusive state apparatus to individuals. It will ban Arizonians from knowingly—or even unknowingly—transporting illegal aliens for any reason, an explicit attempt to crack down on homeowners who pick up Mexicans gathered outside places like Home Depot for household projects.

But the most controversial aspect of the law is its provision requiring Arizona police to demand the immigration papers of any individual when "reasonable suspicion" exists that he or she might be illegal. If the police fails to do so, the law empowers bystanders to sue. But since "reasonable suspicion" won't involve presenting actual evidence before a judge to obtain a court order, the police will inevitably have to make snap judgments based on external features. This means that, unless Arizona deploys officers who are blind and deaf, they won't stop blue-eyed blonds who "speak American." Indeed, anyone who claims the law won't lead to racial profiling is in denial or just plain lying.

Even the claim that the bill doesn't apply to citizens is disingenuous. Regardless of what the law says, dark-skinned, naturalized citizens with an accent (like me) will inevitably feel the pressure to carry their papers around at all times. That's because if you can't produce them on demand, under Arizona law, you would have to be detained while the local police verify your status with immigration authorities—which will put you on the road to Kafkaland, where your freedom could be held hostage by a typographical error. The upshot will be a dual class of citizens on American soil: Paper-carrying and non-paper-carrying.

This is very similar to the situation in Italy, where the law does not require citizens to carry their identification papers—but if they don't have them, they have to face the prospect of being detained and hassled while authorities conduct a background check.

The only way of making the Arizona law less discriminatory will be by making it more draconian by implementing a full-blown National Identification system that covers all Americans, as in France and Belgium. In France random ID checks by police, especially in poorer neighborhoods, are quite common. And in Belgium, on the threat of fines, everyone over the age of 15 is required by law to carry an identity card complete with an electronic chip full of personal information.

This danger is hardly far-fetched given that America's leading immigration reform proposal—endorsed by President Obama—actually calls for a National ID program. But while such policies might behoove countries where citizenship is like membership in an ethnic or linguistic club, it is profoundly at odds with America's spirit of openness, which embraces everyone who shares its ideals of liberty. Regrettably, however, Arizona's misguided law might have set into motion the second prong of the bipartisan consensus that is closing, pincer-like, to squeeze out everything unique about America.

Welcome to the United States of Europe.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at Forbes. This column originally appeared at Forbes.