Razing Arizona law


A quick and broad rejection of the state’s draconian anti-immigrant statute — an American version of apartheid South African pass laws — is essential. Boycotts and legal action will get Arizonans’ attention.

Today, more than 100,000 Angelenos are expected to mark May Day with a protest against a draconian new Arizona statute that essentially amounts to an American version of apartheid South Africa’s infamous pass laws.

It is a measure that not only will deny immigrants, whatever their legal status, equal protection of the law, but also inevitably will involve racial profiling of all Latinos. Its supporters’ claims and the language of the statute notwithstanding, there simply is no way to enforce a law like this one without singling out people whose mere appearance suggests foreign heritage, particularly that of Latin America.

That’s why President Obama and U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. should push forward with legal challenges based on Arizona’s blatant disregard of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. It’s also why Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did the right thing this week when he joined L.A. City Council members calling for the city to boycott Arizona until the law is repealed.

City Controller Wendy Greuel estimates that L.A. does at least $7.2 million in business annually with Arizona firms. That preliminary figure doesn’t include the Department of Water and Power’s purchase of some water and electricity from two coal-fired power plants in Arizona. Skeptics have said the latter agreements will render any boycott symbolic, but there’s nothing to prevent City Hall from putting Arizona on notice that those agreements won’t be renewed if the discriminatory statute remains.

As Villaraigosa pointed out Thursday, “boycotts work.” They helped push South Africa away from apartheid. When Arizona refused to acknowledge the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, moving the 1993 Super Bowl from Tempe to Pasadena helped change minds there. Major League Baseball’s 2011 All-Star game is supposed to be played in Arizona. It would be a travesty for a professional sport that depends on Latino athletes and fans to let those plans go forward.

The necessity for quick and broadly based rejection of the Arizona statute is plain. In hard times like these, immigrants are an all-too-convenient scapegoat. It’s no surprise that lawmakers in neighboring states — like Utah and Texas — have introduced or are considering laws similar to Arizona’s.

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, the author of the new statute left little doubt where he and his allies hope to take their state’s policies. State Sen. Russell Pearce now has written legislation that will force Arizona’s public schools to identify all their students who are undocumented immigrants. Arizona’s Department of Education then will be required to determine how much it costs to educate those young people and to report on the “adverse impact” of their presence.

Anti-immigrant groups already are lining up in support of Pearce because, if passed, his new bill might give them a chance to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 ruling that struck down Texas’ attempt to deny public education to undocumented immigrant children. The Plyler decision is a bête noir to many conservatives, who regard Justice William Brennan’s opinion on behalf of the 5-4 majority as a kind of high-water mark of judicial activism.

Pearce and his supporters are fishing in particularly angry and ugly waters with this new initiative, for the court’s deliberations on Plyler took an unusually personal turn. According to Brennan’s notes, at one point during their conference on the case, Justice William H. Rehnquist, the future chief justice, referred to the plaintiffs as “wetbacks.” When an angry Thurgood Marshall objected to the slur, Rehnquist — who had practiced law in Arizona for nearly 20 years — replied that the term was commonly used where he came from. Unappeased, Marshall demanded an apology, comparing it to the vulgar epithet for blacks to which he’d been personally subjected. Rehnquist declined to back down.

This is precisely where the legislative tantrum underway in the Southwest will take more of this country — if the Obama administration does not act expeditiously and if responsible leaders at all levels don’t take concrete steps to make Arizonans aware that the course they’re pursuing is unacceptable.

We won’t find a wiser or more decent standard by which to judge this unhappy turn of events than the one Brennan enunciated in his conclusion to the court’s opinion nearly three decades ago: “The equal protection clause was intended to work nothing less than the abolition of all caste-based and invidious class-based legislation. That objective is fundamentally at odds with the power the state asserts here to classify persons subject to its laws as nonetheless excepted from its protection.”