Commentary: New Mexico's plan to check status upon arrest is right
SAN DIEGO -- Liberals have come up with a new joke: "How do you say 'Jan Brewer' in Spanish?" Answer: "Susana Martinez."
Frankly, I don't see the resemblance.
Brewer, the Republican governor of Arizona, is someone despised by Latinos for polluting the immigration debate with untruths and signing an immigration law that all but mandates racial profiling because it requires local police to determine the legal status of those they come in contact with.
Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico, is someone who enjoys strong support from Latinos. In November, she was elected with about 38 percent of the Latino vote. (Since Latinos tend to vote Democratic, a good showing for a Republican is anything north of 35 percent.) After nearly two months in office, a new survey by Public Policy Polling shows that 49 percent of Latinos approve of the job that Martinez is doing while only 34 percent disapprove.
One of these border governors has hurt the GOP by helping to alienate a growing segment of the electorate while the other is a rising star in the party who is talked about as an attractive running mate for whoever wins the 2012 nomination.
The comparison is absurd. So why make it?
Here's why: Martinez recently signed an executive order requiring state police to inquire about the immigration status of people they arrest.
The headline writes itself: "Latina governor of New Mexico betrays her own people with an Arizona-type law." The media love the story because it's filled with irony. Democrats love it because the flap could damage Martinez's political future. Even some Republicans love it because the fact that a Latina might be pulling from their playbook could help dull the accusation that many in their camp are motivated by racism. Meanwhile, Latinos are eager to believe it because one of our idiosyncrasies is that we keep waiting for other Latinos to sell us out as a way of proving their loyalty to non-Latinos.
There's only one problem with this story: It's not true.
Martinez's order doesn't apply to every police officer in the state, just the troopers who answer to the governor. And not everyone the state police comes in contact with would get their status checked, just the folks they arrest. Martinez, a former prosecutor, specified that witnesses and victims of crime would be not be asked their immigration status.
None of this is coming out in the media, which rarely gives Latino Republicans a fair shake. See: Miguel Estrada, Alberto Gonzales, Marco Rubio, etc.
So I asked Martinez to speak for herself, and explain what her order does -- and doesn't do.
"When someone is arrested, state police will check their status," she told me. "That's it. No one is knocking on doors. No one is pulling over drivers and asking for proof of citizenship. That's Arizona. That's not New Mexico."
In the real world of policing, local law enforcement officers can interact with illegal immigrants in a variety of ways. At one extreme, you have Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his posse of deputies searching for illegal immigrants -- and what Arpaio is really in pursuit of: television cameras. At the other extreme, you have a completely hands-off approach where, even if a suspect is booked into jail on an unrelated offense, police will not contact Border Patrol to determine if he's in the country illegally.
Neither of these approaches makes sense. The better alternative is in the middle. The trigger for a state or local law enforcement agency questioning someone's immigration status should be an arrest, not a stop or a detention as it is in Arizona.
That's good policing. And that's what Martinez is trying to encourage. For her, this isn't about cracking down on the undocumented to advance a political agenda.
"What I've done is purely a public safety issue," she said, "not an immigration issue."
Martinez says the new policy is backed by nearly 80 percent of New Mexicans, and that critics are "intentionally misleading the public" and "trying to scare people."
When I asked the governor if she feels singled out because of her ethnicity, Martinez brushed aside the question.
"The people who oppose this would oppose it anyway," she said. "No matter who was issuing the policy."
I have to disagree. If they weren't so eager to advance the narrative about the elected official who curried public favor by betraying her own kind, those opposing this policy might actually take a minute and try to understand it.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.