Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The truth about Arizona's immigration law

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 5:35 PM EDT, Mon April 23, 2012
Visitors wait to enter the U.S. in Nogales, Arizona. Thousands of Mexicans have work permits and commute daily.
Visitors wait to enter the U.S. in Nogales, Arizona. Thousands of Mexicans have work permits and commute daily.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Arizona's immigration law not all about racism or border security
  • Navarrette: It's fear the Latino immigrants who made Arizona boom will take over
  • It's dangerous because it makes deputies out of local and state police, he writes
  • It's also wrong, he says, because it takes away U.S.-born Latinos' freedom

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego (CNN) -- With the Supreme Court poised this week to hear arguments in the legal challenge to Arizona's immigration law, it's a good time to explain what this law and the ruckus surrounding it are really about.

The left says it's about racism and political extremism; the right claims the issues are border security and public safety.

Wrong. In the two years since Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, it's become clear that this law, and the debate over it, are really about three things: fear, power, and freedom.

It's about fear. As someone who lived in Phoenix and wrote for the Arizona Republic in the late 1990s, I can tell you that Arizonans only recently reached the conclusion that they wanted to get rid of illegal immigrants. The 'Zonies I knew couldn't live without them.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Not a lot of U.S. citizens were lining up to do the hard and dirty jobs that the undocumented were doing. That includes landscaping or other jobs that require you to work outdoors in 115-degree weather.

In 1994, when Californians passed Proposition 187 -- an anti-illegal immigration ballot initiative that intended to deny public services to illegal immigrants but was ultimately struck down by the courts -- and when President Bill Clinton launched "Operation Gatekeeper" to beef up enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who had been headed to California took a detour through Arizona.

Brewer recounts tense Obama encounter
2010: AZ governor signs immigration bill

Those who crusade against illegal immigration in the Grand Canyon State will say that this is when the "invasion" began. In truth, it was more like a gigantic job fair where employers eagerly gobbled up illegal immigrants to do everything from cleaning houses to raising children to cooking in restaurants.

At the time, few people seemed concerned about verifying legal status. I once asked the crew washing my car at a popular Phoenix carwash if they had fake green cards, and one of the young men chuckled and said there was no need, since the employer never asked if they were legally eligible to work.

Fueled by illegal immigrant labor, cities like Phoenix boomed, and this was fine by the Phoenicians -- many of whom envisioned their city growing into a desert metropolis with all the amenities. But the problem was that they weren't prepared for the demographic side effect: the fear that they were losing control, and the realization that whites would soon become a statistical minority in Arizona just as they are in California, Texas and New Mexico.

Something had to be done to readjust the ethnic balance. And that something was SB 1070, or as local activists have dubbed it: "The Mexican Removal Act."

It's about power. One of the main things that makes the law so controversial is also one of the things that the lower federal courts have said makes it unconstitutional -- that it essentially deputizes local and state police, who typically haven't been trained to enforce immigration law, and gives them the power to act as surrogates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Constitution is pretty clear that regulating immigration policy is exclusively a federal responsibility, which is the reason that Proposition 187 was struck down. And the scores of police chiefs who resist enforcing federal immigration law are correct that it erodes the trust between law enforcement and local communities. But perhaps the best argument against giving local and state police this power is that they almost always misuse it.

You see, this job is tougher than it looks, if you want to surgically remove illegal immigrants without harassing or disrupting the lives of U.S.-born Latinos, including some whose families have been in the Southwest for nearly 500 years. That is especially true in the place that used to be called the Arizona Territory.

For those of us who support the role of federal agents to enforce immigration law, including deporting people when appropriate, the problem isn't that the law is being enforced. By all means, the law should be enforced.

The problem is who is doing the enforcing. If the dirty work of asking people for birth certificates and other forms of identification to prove they have a legal right to be in this country is being done by amateurs, it is more likely that there will be mistakes. People will be profiled. Dark skins and accents will take the place of hard evidence and probable cause. Civil rights will be trampled upon.

That's the concern in Arizona, where state lawmakers made a power grab and foolishly gave local and state police officers something that most of them never wanted: the authority to enforce federal immigration law. That authority has to be held in check and closely monitored, and that is where the courts come in.

This is the role that U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton fulfilled when, in July 2010, she struck down some of the most grotesque parts of the law -- a requirement that local police determine the immigration status of individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally, a mandate that people carry documents that prove they have a legal right to be in the United States, and a provision making it a crime for laborers to solicit work.

And it's about freedom, because U.S.-born Latinos should be free from harassment. They shouldn't have to prove they belong in their own country. In this case, they should be spared the additional humiliation of having to prove they have the legal right to be in a region to which they are indigenous.

They have the right to be left alone without mischief-making bureaucrats or lawmakers calling their "American-ness" into question. They and their families have earned it the hard way -- by answering this nation's call, enlisting in the military, and often making the ultimate sacrifice dating back to the days of the American Revolution.

Conservatives get worked up over perceived threats to freedom all the time. Whether it's a smoking ban or a government mandate to buy health insurance, those on the right know how to raise a fuss over big government. What could be worse that police agencies using the blunt instrument of racial and ethnic profiling to ferret out suspected illegal immigrants? How does government get any "bigger" than that?

This debate was never about the rights of illegal immigrants. It's about the rights of those U.S. citizens and legal residents whom the untrained and uninformed might mistake for illegal immigrants.

It's about the kind of country we've always been, and the kind that we want to remain. We sometimes forget that personal liberty is the cornerstone of the United States of America. Once again, it's up to the Supreme Court to remind us.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT