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Papers please / Ausweis bitte

April 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In some of my more advanced English lessons, I occasionally like to mention the news of the day from the United States and see how my German students react. In most cases, even the most conservative students will have a viewpoint that would be considered quite liberal in the United States, as Europe has no equivalent to Fox News and the right isn’t being constantly led further and further to the right, but the reaction I got to the Arizona legislation requiring police to check the I.D. of anyone they suspect to be an illegal immigrant surprised me and made me reconsider my initial outrage.

The law doesn’t seem at all strange to the Germans, who have a similar policy themselves. People are supposed to carry I.D. with them at all times, and if the police suspect they might be in the country illegally they have the right to demand to see it. What’s so strange about this?

Indeed, the spirit of the Arizona law isn’t actually as far-out as many in the liberal media are framing it. However, the letter of the law definitely goes too far, and there’s a skin-color component that exists by default in America that is not so much the case in Europe.

The fact that the police are required to ask for I.D. if they have a reasonable suspicion that someone may be illegal is too much. German police are entitled to ask, but they are certainly not required, and the idea that an officer can be sued for not asking is a tad insane. In my mind, the strongest point made against this legislation is that Mexicans will no longer turn to law enforcement for anything out of the fear that they or someone they know will wind up deported. Crimes will almost certainly go unreported, and this is bad for everybody.

If you eliminated the requirement aspect and simply made enforcement of this law voluntary for police officers, you’d still have plenty of officers more than happy to enforce it. That in itself leads to the other problem, that of racial profiling. Defenders of the law are being completely ridiculous to suggest that it can be enforced without racial profiling. “You can tell someone is illegal by their behavior, how they dress, what shoes they wear, etc.” Give me a break. No one believes you—not even you.

Of course there’s going to be racial profiling. Illegal immigrants, by in large, tend to be Mexican. Many Mexicans—not all, but many—have darker skin. In Germany, illegal immigrants are just as likely to be white as dark-skinned. There is a significant population of Russian immigrants where I live, many of whom are illegal, and apparently they commit crimes at a higher percentage rate than other ethnicities (I have not attempted to verify this—it’s merely an assertion by one of my students that met with agreement from the others). So if an officer hears a group of people standing around and speaking Russian, he’s likely to ask for identification.

Police in Arizona don’t even need to listen for what language is being spoken—they can spot a Mexican even behind the wheel of a car. Overzealous police officers will almost certainly start pulling people over for the crime of driving while brown. If I were an Arab or an Indian, I’d definitely stay the hell out of Arizona.

Which brings me to the final thing about this legislation that makes it far less sensible than the German law—it’s exclusive to one state. At least in Germany, the law applies nationally. But Arizona has practically made itself into its own country by implementing this legislation on its own. You’ll need a passport just to drive through the state or you risk imprisonment.

What befuddles me most about all this is how the very same people who are always railing about the big intrusive government are the ones most in favor of this kind of law. But what could be more intrusive than giving agents of the government the power to demand identification papers and to throw you in jail if you can’t produce them? The only reason they support this law is because they don’t think they’ll be targeted. But just wait until a few of them find themselves pulled over and asked for I.D. while driving home from a BBQ at which they spent a little too much time in the sun…

Still, I don’t think it’s all that crazy to let police ask people for papers. I just think that if it’s going to be done at all, it should be nation-wide, and if enforcement is compulsory they should be forced to demand papers from everyone they encounter—not just the brown ones.

But finally, while this may reduce the population of illegal immigrants by a slight margin, it’s hardly a solution. Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level is badly needed, but even that won’t really solve the problem. We can debate all we want about border security and a path to citizenship for those already here, but as long as we refuse to address the source of the problem, Mexican citizens are going to continue to enter the U.S. illegally as long as they can’t make a decent living in Mexico. Two things must be done to solve the problem. 1- Legalize drugs to cut off the source of income for drug cartels which have a stranglehold on the Mexican government. 2- Implement a Marshall-Plan style program to help Mexico improve its economy so that its citizens will no longer need to immigrate.

Of course, the people who complain about immigration the most are also the least likely to support drug legalization or giving money to the Mexican government. But if you won’t accept the only solution to the problem, it’s a bit like complaining that you have no food while refusing to go out and buy some.

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