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Andres Oppenheimer
Thursday, March 1, 2012

Arizona ‘model’ would hurt immigrants

Another Viewpoint

If Mitt Romney becomes the next president of the United States and honors his latest vow to turn the Arizona immigration law into a “model” for the country, life in America could become quite unpleasant for many of us who look like immigrants or speak English with a foreign accent.

In the Feb. 22 Republican debate in Arizona, where Romney and his main rival Rick Santorum were competing for the state’s anti-illegal immigration vote, Romney praised Arizona’s E-Verify system to check employees’ immigration status and said, “I think we see a model here in Arizona.” Romney added that, if elected, he would stop current federal lawsuits against Arizona-style laws “from day one.”

“Dios Mío!” I said to myself when I heard that. Judging from what we have seen in states that have passed Arizona-styled laws, that would lead to arbitrary arrests and interrogations not only of undocumented immigrants, but of legal residents and U.S. citizens as well.

The 2010 Arizona law requires, among other things, that local police demand immigration papers when they have a reasonable suspicion that a person is in the country illegally. It was suspended after a federal lawsuit questioning its constitutionality and is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters of the law deny it would lead to a wild goose chase of foreign-looking people and to widespread harassment of immigrants. They say the law does not allow police officers to stop people at random, because it specifically requires that they demand immigration papers only when they carry out a “lawful stop, detention or arrest.”

But those are vague terms, critics say. A police officer wanting to make overtime could legally stop people to ask whether they saw something suspicious around the corner, then arrest them for not having proper immigration papers.

In addition, the Arizona law requires that local police act as immigration inspectors not only when they legally stop somebody for a crime, but also when they do it for a violation of a city ordinance.

“The central problem is that it opens the door to widespread racial profiling based on what individuals look like or sound like,” Karen Tumlin, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, told me last week. “The ‘reasonable suspicion’ wording would force cops to make judgments based on what people look like.”

It has already happened, and not just with Latin American or Asia-born people.

In Alabama, one of several states that has passed Arizona-styled laws, a German executive with Mercedes-Benz was recently arrested under the state’s new immigration law near his company’s manufacturing plant for not carrying documents proving his legal immigration status, The Associated Press reported Nov. 19.

The 46-year-old German visitor’s rental car was stopped by a police officer, and the man was arrested when he could not prove his legal immigration status, Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steven Anderson told the wire agency. The visitor was released when an associate retrieved his passport from his hotel room.

A recent study by University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research economist Sam Addy concluded that the Alabama law could cost the state as much as $10.8 billion a year. Another study says Arizona’s law has cost that state’s tourism industry $490 million.

Can you imagine what would happen in tourism and foreign trade-dependent states such as Florida if Arizona-like laws became the law of the land? Or what it would do to the real estate and convention industries in cities like Miami or New York?

My opinion: By almost any measure, Arizona-style laws are morally questionable and economically disastrous, and increasingly unnecessary at a time when illegal immigration has dropped dramatically after the 2008 U.S. economic downturn.

If Romney – and, to be fair, Santorum as well – stopped federal lawsuits against these xenophobic laws and allowed them to become a “model” for the entire nation, America would cease to be the country it has always been.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald. Email him at  aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.