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Karen Finney Headshot

History Repeating?

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A little over a week ago, standing in the courtyard on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, another former prisoner (also a member of the ANC), described the Apartheid era "pass laws" which required black people and all "non-white" South Africans to carry identification with them at all times. He described a kind of in-country passport, which included a photo, personal details like date, and place of birth, employment status and fingerprints. A person could be imprisoned if they were unable to produce the document when asked to do so by the police, who had the right to stop anyone at any time and ask to see your pass. He described people being arrested just steps from their homes because an officer would not even let you step inside your house to retrieve the document. The individual police officer had complete discretion to determine if there was sufficient reason to request to see papers and to make an arrest. The pass laws were part of a series of laws designed to scapegoat blacks and non-whites, isolate and prevent them from broader social and economic participation in society.

On the boat ride back to Cape Town we discussed how much the pass laws sounded like the Nuremberg Laws, implemented in Nazi Germany, which also required people to carry identification papers if they could not prove that they were non-Jews. It was at the discretion of the police officer to "ask" to see one's papers at any time. This series of laws was passed to systematically scapegoat Jewish people and isolate them socially and economically from society. It made me think about Jim Crow laws used to isolate African Americans and a childhood memory of my Dad being pulled over on a Virginia highway late at night coming home from visiting my great-grandfather. I can't tell you to this day what the officer used to make the determination that my father and I (an African American driving a Mercedes perhaps?) needed to be pulled over and questioned.

The Arizona law - now also being considered in Texas - requires people to carry identification or documentation at all times to prove they are in the country legally. A police officer has the full discretion to determine if there is "reasonable" suspicion that a person is in the country illegally. And just to make sure the police are doing their jobs, citizens can bring a lawsuit against officers if they think the police aren't doing their job and enforcing the law. (Can you say frivolous lawsuit?)

History teaches us that these kinds of laws are a slippery slope. Fears of "otherness" are systematically codified in these laws, groups of people are targets of scapegoating as they are isolated socially and economically from our society. Once people begin to accept that taking away this piece of our humanity and values is okay, it becomes easier to push additional steps. Steps like restrictions on where a person can go within the country, that people must have proof of who they are seeing and where they are going; or which groups can marry, restrictions on where someone can or can't be employed. Piece by piece, bit by bit it becomes easier to accept each piece as part of the new system.

That is not America. Illegal immigration is a real problem, but this law in Arizona is not the answer. It is true that for a very long time now the federal government has failed to adequately address the issue. To his credit, President Bush tried, but he was blocked by the same Republicans who now have an opportunity to work with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform that is consistent with our values as Americans.

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