Bill prompts alarm and points to need for comprehensive national reforms

Monday’s New York Times editorial “Arizona goes over edge” is but the latest in a flood of expressions of alarm at an immigration bill recently passed by that state’s legislature. We share the concern, particularly given our long-standing support for making the United States a more attractive place for foreign students and foreign talent. The problems raised by the bill are fundamental and serious.

The establishment and enforcement of immigration law is a federal responsibility. Certainly, states have unique issues and concerns when it comes to a wide range of public policy issues; in border states, the issue of undocumented  immigration is more acutely felt, and the problem of illegal drug trafficking is a very real and complex one. The U.S. government has a long way to go to resolve these deep and difficult matters. But the Arizona bill, as the Times puts it, is “an all-out assault on the mostly harmless undocumented, with the innocent as collateral damage.”

The reality is that the impact of immigration laws and immigration enforcement cannot be contained within state lines. They have substantial national and global ripple effects. As the Times points out, this kind of development at the state level makes it all the more urgent for Congress to act decisively – and soon – on comprehensive immigration reform. It cannot be left up to local and state law enforcement to determine the legal status of individuals who are not being taken into custody on another matter.

It is well known that when the police are seen as an extension of immigration enforcement, it creates an environment in which members of a community are afraid to turn to law enforcement when they are a victim of or witness to a crime. Police agencies across the country have often pointed out that this kind of harsh enforcement tactic undercuts their fundamental mission and wastes resources. Immigrants have been targeted for violent crime and infringement of basic human rights because the attackers believe they will not go to the authorities. And so we come to the specter of racial profiling. As the Times writes, the law would “allow officers to arrest anyone who could not immediately prove they were here legally. That means if you are brown-skinned and leave home without a wallet, you are in trouble.” Although it’s fairly certain most white people with American accents couldn’t easily prove on the spot that they are legally present here, unless they carry their passport around (which less than 30% of us have), one suspects they are not likely, under this law, to be asked to do so.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. We come in all colors and ethnicities and speak many languages with many different accents. We also seek to attract talented people from around the world to attend our colleges and universities, to fuel innovation and to strengthen our economy. It simply does not make sense to create a situation in which our laws imply that it is okay to look unfavorably on a certain group of people who do not fit a certain mold of what some believe an “American” is.