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Commentary: Ariz. has a hornet's nest with new immigration law

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opinion Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- A reader demands that the media stop pussyfooting around and call the new Arizona immigration law what it is: "The Mexican Removal Act."

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Too harsh? Not if you saw a recent story by a Phoenix television station that examined hundreds of e-mails exchanged between supporters of the legislation and its sponsor, state Sen. Russell Pearce. Here is how one constituent described the bill's purpose: "I think it is about time we take our state and country back from the Mexicans." Many others offered similar comments.

The truth can be ugly. But we shouldn't turn a blind eye to it.

And here is the reality: There is a segment of the U.S. population that would like to turn back the demographic clock to a Beaver Cleaver era when a headline declaring "Whites to be U.S. minority by 2050" was inconceivable. Yet according to Census Bureau estimates, the U.S. Latino population is expected to triple in the next 40 years.

Not if Arizona has anything to say about it. No sir. Why? Because "it is about time what we take our state and country back from the Mexicans."

This isn't to say that the new law is inherently racist, or that everyone who supports it is racist. But one would have to be naive to run off in the opposite direction and label the measure, or the passions fueling it, race-neutral -- as if intimidating, offending, inconveniencing and scaring off as many Latinos as possible was an unintended consequence instead of the prime objective.

There is no shortage of naivete. Faced with a law that turns local and state police into makeshift immigration agents -- without the additional training that real federal immigration agents must complete -- many Americans have decided that racial profiling is harmless as long as some other group is profiled.

What is in short supply is empathy. Some identify with those who feel that their state is being invaded, its services abused and resources depleted. Others align themselves with those who worry about being treated as second-class citizens because of ethnicity, skin color, accent or another characteristic that makes them appear "foreign" in their own country. Neither camp seems interested in the other's point of view.

I'm getting an earful from both sides. In the last few weeks, I've received dozens of e-mails from people who assure me that Latinos who are U.S. citizens or have a legal right to be in the United States have no reason to be offended by the new law and nothing to worry about. And I've received dozens of e-mails from Latinos who fall into those categories and who tell me they're offended and worried. Some of them either live in Arizona or travel there often and are concerned about being accosted by police relying on a flimsy excuse.

This simply would never happen, the first group assures me with the absolute confidence of those who have nothing to lose if their assumptions are wrong.

Besides pining away for Beaver Cleaver, their image of police is stuck on squeaky clean Joe Friday. "Just the facts, ma'am."

Here are the facts: (1) Arizona lawmakers have boxed police officers in with a law that requires them -- under threat of litigation -- to check the citizenship of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally once they make contact due to an alleged infraction; (2) the list of "infractions" is broad enough to include everything from trespassing to vagrancy to soliciting work to attending a party where the music is too loud; and (3) police officers are going to do everything they can to fulfill their obligations under the law.

And, as human beings, those officers will find it difficult not to give in to their prejudices. Take it from the experts. Among the critics of the Arizona law I heard from is a Latino police sergeant in a major U.S. city who, after more than 25 years on the job, knows how this game is going to play out.

"You're right," he wrote, "in the real world of policing as a peace officer on the street, any tool will be used to gain an advantage during any contact. It's our nature to be proactive."

Which is why the rest of us have to be just as proactive in pointing out what an indefensible law this is -- especially to those who are determined to defend it.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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