Post-Racial Immigration Quandary; Ethnicity Matters in Border Protection, but Not in Becoming a Citizen

Article excerpt


Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of a controversial new immigration law ignited a ferocious de- bate predictably dominated by rhetorical hys- eria. Roger Cardinal Mahony, the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, said the new law entails reverting to German Nazi and Russ- ian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation.

Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, referred to it as one example of many outbreaks of nativist apoplexy and compared all those who support it to conspiracy-obsessed birthers who demand to see evidence of President Obama's citizenship. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann claimed the law will turn Arizona into a virtual police state and encouraged a nationwide boycott of it. Former Arizona Gov. and current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ruefully called it a shame.

The issue of immigration is necessarily a tempestuous one since it revolves around a nexus of sensitive concerns: security, race and the character of American citizenship. It is impossible to even raise the issue of security without also introducing the question of whose security from whom - our protection from potentially dangerous illegal immigrants requires that principles of national inclusion and exclusion be articulated. This means that the pressing question of national security invites the volatile partisanship that often comes with racial politics, but also provides an opportunity to address the only genuinely legitimate issue of identity politics, that is, the question of what properly constitutes American identity.

It is a testament to the delicate nature of the debate that the most pressing and pragmatically solvable problem - the securing of our frighteningly porous borders - has been forestalled by the complications that attach to race and character. Every reasonably astute observer seems to concede that the United States has both the resources and the general know-how to stop the constant incursion of illegal immigrants across our borders. Likewise, everyone also seems to concede that decisively addressing our permeable territorial lines is a precondition for whatever comprehensive national policy is eventually adopted. Our failure not only to fashion a plan but to sanely address this predicament can only be attributed to a lack of political will in the face of the demands of political correctness. There is nothing Mr. Obama could do that would more powerfully justify his claim to be the first post-racial president than resolutely craft a new national policy on immigration.

The centrality of race can easily be detected in the only objection detractors of the new law seem to consistently forward - as Ms. Napolitano put it: I think it could certainly invite racial profiling. Her objection - and Mr. Olbermann's, for that matter - is not based on a constitutional argument for the proper province of federal versus state power. Neither one of them is known as an ardent champion of states' rights. Their objection seems to be that the law necessarily entails a consideration of ethnicity in the enforcement of law. However, the crux of any immigration policy, American and otherwise, has historically always involved some consideration of ethnicity insofar as it is tied to a determination of national origin. Even after the Immigration Act of 1965 ended the long-standing system of national-origins quotas, it still included some principles of national preference (e.g., for refugees of Communist nations).

In the context of Arizona, the deluge of illegal immigration specifically comes from the only foreign nation it shares a border with - Mexico. One might reasonably object to the new Arizona law on the grounds that it explicitly forbids all instances of racial profiling despite the fact that the very nature of the crime in question, the illegal entry into Arizona from a Hispanic country, makes ethnicity a factor in its detection and prosecution. …