Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Anti-immigrant backlash that starts in Arizona should stop in Arizona

Contributed by Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director and "On Liberty" blogger

Unless you are Native American or a descendent of slaves, your ancestors most likely were immigrants to this country.

Perhaps your family came here seeking religious liberty or fleeing persecution. Or maybe they came for economic reasons -- because staying home meant a life of grinding poverty, at best, and starvation at worst. Whatever the specific reasons, those who came to these shores were in search of a better future for themselves and for their children. They ended up building a nation -- for all of us.

Given this common American experience, it always strikes me as odd (or at least exceedingly ahistorical) when our nation falls under the grip of anti-immigrant hysteria.

The most recent incarnation of anti-immigrant backlash was the passage in Arizona ofbone-headed legislation that will require police officers to ask people for their papers based on some undefined "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country unlawfully.

It's a law that invites racial profiling in the worst way. On what other basis than race will a police officer suspect that someone is not legally present in the United States? The Arizona law will lead to targeting of Latinos (including American citizens and lawful permanent residents) with mass sweeps and enforcement operations.

So it was heartening to see the Boston City Council and Mayor Tom Menino take a stand against the Arizona law last week -- denouncing Arizona's race-baiting policies, while reaffirming our city's commitment to America's values of fairness and equality. The Worcester City Council is considering a similar measure, and, while opposing a boycott,Governor Patrick blasted the Arizona law.

If only all Massachusetts politicians were so enlightened!

In contrast to these patriotic stances -- and in a classic example of political pandering -- Massachusetts State Rep. Jeff Perry, last week filed a budget amendment that would have prevented anyone from receiving any federal, state or municipal public benefits without first having their lawful presence in the U.S. verified. Perry, who is vying for the Republican nomination to succeed Congressman William Delahunt, apparently thought that an anti-immigrant bill would boost his political fortunes among voters who forgot that their ancestors also were immigrants to this country.

Not to be out-dumbed, gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker tried to get in on the anti-immigrant action by announcing his support for a plan to require homeless people to show proof of residency before they could stay at a homeless shelter or take advantage of any public benefits. Baker had to back away from this scheme when someone pointed out that homeless people, by definition, don't have residences. Baker later said his shelter position was misrepresented, although it is hard to imagine how to represent it as anything other than crude political pandering.

Of course, Perry and Baker are also part of another American tradition: the one that coined the phrases: "No Irish Need Apply" and "Round up the usual (Italian) suspects".

These days, anti-immigrant sentiment directed against Irish and Italians would be political suicide. But Perry and Baker know that each new wave of immigrants faces persecution for a generation of two, and during that time short-sighted politicians can gain short-run votes by pandering to base anti-immigrant sentiments.

Fortunately, the Arizona law already is being challenged by a range of civil rights groups including the ACLU, as well as by businesses, citizens, and sports teams that understand and believe in the American dream.

So when Arizona says "show us your papers," let's show them our Constitution -- and ensure that what started in Arizona, stops in Arizona.

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