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 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT