Reasoning Arizona

June 09, 2010

President Obama is using the new Arizona immigration law to advance a central White House preoccupation: his reelection. At a town-hall meeting in Iowa last April, the president warned Hispanic-Americans that the Arizona statute would open them up to being “harassed” when “you took your kid out to get ice cream.” In remarks at a White House Cinco de Mayo reception, he argued that Arizona’s law would “undermine fundamental principles,” turning Latinos “into subjects of suspicion and abuse.” But will Latinos in Arizona be routinely tormented?

Even a quick reading of the statute shows that police can question someone about his or her immigration status only if three conditions are met. First, there has to have been a “lawful stop, detention, or arrest” to enforce another law. Second, during the course of that stop, detention, or arrest, a “reasonable suspicion” has to exist that “the person is an alien.” And third, law enforcement “may not consider race, color, or national origin…except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution.” This is a tight and reasonable standard.

The Arizona law is so narrowly drawn that it’s hard to see how it will affect many people. Those whom it does concern will already have been stopped, detained, or arrested for other lawful purposes. Given Obama’s hyperventilation about the law, it’s fair to ask: what is Washington’s standard for allowing federal law enforcement to ask about immigration status?

When my office put this question to Customs and Border Protection (CPB), we were pointed to “Securing America’s Borders at Ports of Entry,” a document from the CBP’s Office of Field Operations. It says that before asking a person’s immigration status, “CBP personnel must effectively blend their own observational techniques and interviewing abilities with situational awareness.” This is a lower, less-precise standard than the Arizona law. So if the president considers the Arizona law racist, what does he consider the federal standard? If Obama believes the strict Arizona conditions are likely to lead to racial profiling, what about federal guidelines his administration now enforces?

The Arizona bill’s passage in an election year provides a racial wedge to inflame tensions between Latinos and Republicans. Obama would rather do this than the hard work needed to pass comprehensive immigration reform. As president he hasn’t laid a foundation for progress on the issue. For example, he devoted only 38 words out of the 7,290 in this year’s State of the Union address to the subject. Nor has he tried hard to garner bipartisan support. One Republican senator at the center of the issue confided to me that his last—and only—contact with the White House on the matter was 10 months ago. And the senator, who didn’t want to be named discussing private conversations with the administration, says he was the one who raised the topic. (The White House declined to comment for this piece.)

Criticized by Hispanic groups, the president recently held a meeting on immigration with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, and then he raised the issue with the GOP Senate caucus. Both were public relations gestures, not serious talks. Three senior Republican aides on both sides of Capitol Hill, who didn’t want to be identified talking about a sensitive issue, say there have been no substantive discussions between the White House and Republican congressional leaders on the topic since (or before) the drop-by.

The president has also offered conflicting messages on immigration. Threatened with the loss of Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s vote for health-care reform, Obama on March 19 called for “Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity” and pledged two days later “to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year.” But once health care passed, with Gutierrez voting aye, Obama reversed course, saying on April 28 that “there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue” and cautioning that “midterms are coming up.” The resulting controversy led Obama to say on May 5, “I want to begin work this year.”

Rather than forge a coalition on reform, Obama is content to use the issue to secure Latino votes—if not for Democrats in this fall’s contests, then for his reelection. He willingly mischaracterizes the Arizona law because doing so benefits his party and himself. But on matters involving race, the president’s obligation is to unify America, not add to tensions. Obama’s political handling of this sensitive issue is shameful.

This article originally appeared on  on Thursday, June 10, 2010.

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