In the late 1990s, I took a job writing for a newspaper and moved to Arizona.
At least I think it was Arizona. The place I remember bears little resemblance to the one you hear about today.
Back then, nativists were on the political fringe; now they're becoming mainstream. Republicans were anxiously reaching out to Latinos; now GOP legislators are making Latinos anxious with race-baiting measures to end affirmative action. Political leaders, including the Republican governor, had torpedoed efforts to bring before voters a ballot initiative that would have denied education and social services to illegal immigrants; now Arizonans are in such a punitive mood that they would easily approve such a measure.
Back then, none other than Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was quoted as saying there wasn't much his deputies could do about illegal immigration since being in the country without documentation wasn't a crime; now Arpaio is so bent on rounding up illegal immigrants that even after the Obama administration stripped him of the authority to determine someone's legal status, he kept on doing it.
And perhaps most significantly, back then the business community was so desperate for labor that it was doing everything but recruiting illegal immigrants and offering them signing bonuses to make beds, cook meals, build homes and otherwise help construct a paradise in the desert; now, Arizonans want to portray themselves as innocent victims of an invasion. Fifteen years ago, Arizonans wanted cheap labor; today, they want your sympathy.
Arizona lawmakers think they're showing how tough they can be in passing a harsh new law that makes it a state crime to be in the United States without the proper legal documents. But really, all they're doing is showing their hypocrisy. If the legislators who voted for this law were serious about trying to curb illegal immigration, they would cut off the job magnet. The Arizona Legislature focused on employers a few years ago, but the effort was aimed at companies as opposed to individuals. Start locking up soccer moms for hiring undocumented housekeepers or Paradise Valley lawyers for outsourcing their yardwork and then we'll talk.
The new legislation, billed as one of the strictest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, would grant police the power to stop anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and verify their immigration status.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican intent on scoring political points by railing against illegal immigrants, will likely sign the bill. And, shortly thereafter, the lawsuits will fly as critics try to get the law tossed out by the courts. There's a good chance of this happening. The law appears to be an unconstitutional power grab by the state that usurps the authority of the federal government to establish and enforce U.S. immigration policy. It will also almost certainly lead to racial profiling of Latinos, including those born in the United States.
This bill is as bad as they come. Not surprisingly, it is the brainchild of state Sen. Russell Pearce, who has spent years teaching Arizonans division. By tapping into a fear of foreigners, Pearce has successfully scared up votes, headlines and political contributions.
Some lawmakers accomplish those things through visionary leadership, courageous acts and soaring rhetoric. People like Pearce do it by pandering to racists and playing to the lowest common denominator.
The real tragedy in all this is that the bill, which professes to take a hard line against illegal activity, will almost certainly produce much more of it. By proposing a law that deputizes every local and state law enforcement officer in Arizona to enforce immigration law, Pearce has single-handedly destroyed the trust between law enforcement agencies and the immigrant communities they have spent years trying to better serve. Good luck finding people who are willing to report crimes and be interviewed as witnesses now that they are afraid they might be arrested or deported. That makes these communities easy prey for criminals and makes the job of law enforcement much harder.
This measure is not wise, or helpful or defensible. In fact, in many ways, it's a surefire recipe for disaster. And it's also the kind of thing that the Arizona I'm familiar with would never have considered.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE