Le Monde, France
Arizona: A Police State?
By Francois Vergniolle de Chantal
Translated By Theresa Borden
12 May 2010
Edited by Jessica Boesl
France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)
The immigration debate has fired up again in the United States in an impressive way: Faced with a lack of national initiative and an increasing fear in the southwest of losing control of the Mexican border, the Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed the final version of S.B. 1070 on April 30, 2010. The law will enter into force this summer. This law gave rise to a phenomenal scandal across the Atlantic. Barack Obama himself gave his opinion on the matter, declaring that it put into question the tradition of American liberty, and threatens the relationship between citizens and the police. Protests have increased across the country, as have calls for economic boycotts. Mexico even officially advised its citizens to leave Arizona. So how did this law end up deserving not only a presidential rebuff, but also such national and international attention?
An AFP dispatch presented the law by stating that it “strengthened” the legal mechanism against illegal aliens. But the generality of the statement hides an interesting comparison. This law effectively permits any police officer in the state of Arizona to ask for residency papers from any person who might be an illegal alien (the text evokes “reasonable suspicion”) — the estimate of such aliens in Arizona is at around 450,000 people.
The shock that this elicits in America is perfectly understandable. As a nation of immigrants, Americans are particularly sensitive to the issue. The first laws that created a general framework to control immigration date from the start of the 1920s. Before 1921, the country was largely open, even though states each had their own laws and the federal government intervened occasionally — for example, against Asian immigration in 1882. Moreover, the Civil Rights Movement that swept across America forty years later gave the race question an almost untouchable status. Any frontal attack based on racial prejudices is sure to bring about extremely strong reactions, easily calling to mind the discriminatory past of America. The statement is even more important in an America that elected an African-American president who, while a senator for Illinois, was strongly dedicated to fighting discrimination.
In this context, a law like the one adopted by Arizona is explosive. The scandal exists not only with regard to the result, but also with regard to the criteria for verification. Hispanic groups have rightfully highlighted that the law allows ethnic profiling that will result in American citizens of Hispanic origin — and not only illegal aliens — being forcibly detained to have their citizenship verified by the police.
Arizona is the only state to have made this decision. It brings to the fore the inability of the federal government to act on the national level, while surveys indicate regularly that public opinion is in favor of immigration reform. In 2007, in spite of the support of President G.W. Bush, a proposal failed in the Senate. Compromise satisfied no one. The right refused to extend any form of amnesty to illegal aliens — the numbers circulating in the media range from 10 to 12 million people — who have not respected the law. As for the left, it refused security measures at the Mexican border. Thus, the problem remains unanswered.
Amalgamation of Security and Immigration
The legislative setting inherited from 1965 has been continually contested by everyone, yet no new consensus has emerged to replace it. Until recently, Obama did not seem to have strong enough encouragement to act. Health care reform in March and current negotiations on financial regulation and on climate change have left little room for other debates.
Not only are congressional elections coming up, but also, Democrats and Republicans are extremely divided on the issue. In such circumstances, immigration is dealt with from the simplest angle, from which a consensus is the easiest: security. In 2006, Congress adopted a law to build a wall on the Mexican border. And in 2002, at the time of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the government body responsible for immigration control, the INS, was integrated into this new department, and in so doing, left the Department of Justice. Since then, the amalgamation of security and immigration has been official.
Scandalous? In the United States, without a doubt. But not in Europe and, notably, not in France, where any police officer can ask anyone on the street for their papers at any time. And, traditionally, our department of the interior includes both police management and the control of immigration. It is very revealing to see that the French media is not relaying any of the debate that is currently raging in the United States over immigration. American news, seen from France, is summarized by the oil spill in Louisiana, to be understood as one more catastrophe in this country of excess, and by the difficulties of financial form, to be understood as that those in power are having a hard time fixing all the wrongs of Wall Street.
As is often the case, it is easier to criticize the United States with an implicit innuendo that the situation in Europe is clearly superior. On the other hand, a debate like the one surrounding the law in Arizona remains strangely absent. I cannot help but see this as one more example of the abundance of transatlantic prejudices. Regarding this particular point, the Americans have an extremely healthy debate, illustrative of the democratic vitality of their country in refusing any abusive augmentation of police power. At least this time, America seems to be in a position to teach us a lesson. It is rather saddening to see the French media putting aside information that, by putting the United States in a good light, casts France in a negative one.
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