Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, and other defenders of the recent Arizona immigration law often justify it by arguing that it does nothing more than use state law enforcement agencies to enforce a federal law. As Goldberg puts it, “[l]egal immigrants have been required under federal law to carry their papers for generations.” Unfortunately, the state law is indeed much more dangerous than the federal one. And the latter is itself problematic.
I. Why the Arizona Law Poses a Much Greater Risk to Civil Liberties.
There is, however, a big difference between the federal law and the Arizona law: most people rarely if ever encounter federal law enforcement officials except at the border, while the same can’t be said for state and local police. My parents and I were green card holders from 1979 to 1986. As far as I know, they rarely if ever carried proof of legal residency with them except when entering and leaving the country. I suspect that most other legal immigrants behave the same way. Why? Because the chance of running into a federal law enforcement officer in everyday life is infinitesmally small. In practice, the federal law creates little if any risk of either racial profiling or the kind of “papers please” regime that critics of the Arizona law fear.
By contrast, even in my relatively low-crime neighborhood, I see state and local police officers almost every day. If, as the Arizona law allows, these officers can demand papers of anyone “reasonably suspected” of being an illegal immigrant, that will indeed create far worse risks than the federal law. Effectively, it means that anyone who looks Asian or Hispanic or speaks English with an accent is at risk of profiling (see this article for a good short explanation of why). It also means [...]