On immigration, it’s up to Washington

The people behind Arizona’s new anti-immigrant statute have at least one thing right: This mean-spirited law was enacted because the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to address the immigration system’s moral and functional failures.

On Sunday, the state’s largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, took the unprecedented step of giving its entire front page over to an editorial making exactly that point. “The federal government is abdicating its duty on the border. Arizona politicians are pandering to public fear,” the Republic wrote. “The result is a state law that intimidates Latinos while doing nothing to curb illegal immigration.”

Noting that President Obama has delegated his administration’s immigration reform effort to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the paper correctly castigated the former Arizona governor for “failure to get the thing out of neutral.” The editorial also severely criticized the state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, for cynically abandoning their commitment to comprehensive reform — the former because he’s in a tight reelection race; the latter because he’s now a member of the GOP leadership in the Senate.

On Monday, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon also called for comprehensive federal action, while calling the measure’s supporters “bitter, small-minded and filled with hate.”

President George W. Bush tried, with the bipartisan support of McCain and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Obama campaigned on a promise to push the effort through to success, one of the reasons that Latino voters flocked to support him. Wary of further controversy though the Democrats’ congressional majority may be, the country has more at stake here than a campaign promise. Like the catastrophic oil spill now spewing pollution into the Gulf of Mexico, Arizona’s toxic political contaminant already is spreading.


Missouri and South Carolina are considering bills similar to Arizona’s, and legislators in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, Utah, Maryland and North Carolina say they plan to introduce such measures. Minnesota’s presumptive Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer, has called the new law “a wonderful first step.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision what Emmer, who also believes Minnesota should be exempt from any federal law not approved by two-thirds of the state’s legislators, and his ilk envision as the next step, which makes it all the more imperative for the Obama administration to act.

In a major address at Fordham University on Monday night, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has emerged as a national leader in the push for comprehensive reform, called it “a moral imperative.”

The prelate argues persuasively that a rational and humane approach to the issue requires recognition of three facts: First, America needs immigrant labor. California’s agricultural industry and that of most of the Southwest, and the South, as well as sectors like hospitality and food service, would collapse without it. Second, with or without papers, the overwhelming majority of immigrants come here to work. And, finally, most of the estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants without papers now live in so-called blended families, at least some of whose members are citizens. An excessively punitive approach to enforcement risks tearing those families apart, at incalculable human cost.

A divisive debate over immigration without the finality of comprehensive reform has the potential to gnaw at the very foundations of our politics. To the extent our two parties continue to configure themselves ever more closely along racial and religious lines, it does insidious damage to the quality of our politics and to the governance they enable. Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern strategy” had the unintended consequence of turning the party of Lincoln, in many voters’ eyes, into the national white people’s party. Democratic myopia concerning the growing economic distress of working-class white males, and to the social values engendered by their traditional religiosity, often has made the party of Roosevelt appear elitist and out of touch.

Legislative guerrilla warfare over immigration, fought out state by state, will further poison the superheated atmosphere leading to the midterm election in the fall. Even where it succeeds as a so-called wedge issue, immigration treated in the fashion of Arizona will alienate even greater numbers of Latinos from the GOP, much as Proposition 187 did in California 16 years ago.

Significant as such long-term political considerations may be, they’re lesser matters when compared with the human costs of having 10 million or more of our workers labor and live as helots along society’s margins, a place where there is neither safety nor security — or to the rampant discrimination against American Latinos that enforcement of Arizona’s statute or its clones inevitably will entail.

Just as the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill has to be contained at the wellhead, this is an issue that only can be addressed rationally and humanely in Washington. Comprehensive immigration reform is the Obama administration’s unavoidable responsibility, and the president and those around him should be judged harshly if they fail to take it up now.