06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Reasonable Suspicions" About Arizona's Immigrant Law

Has it happened? Have we officially codified and sanctioned racial (or, more precise, ethnic) profiling -- at least in Arizona? After the initial gasps, grandstanding and overall uproar, will that law embolden opponents of immigration reform elsewhere to enact similar statutes? Sure, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer stressed racial profiling won't be tolerated, not to mention that the law's enforcers will receive adequate training. Her stern and strident assurances might assuage some. But fear is a potent and destructive force. How do you separate stereotypes from suspicion, "reasonable" or otherwise? First, I want to clarify: It would be incorrect and irresponsible to label all opponents of immigration reform bigots. Many are simply concerned about the busted immigration system. However, there are strains of xenophobia and nativism driving the debate with not-so-subtle undercurrents of cultural and racial identity.

Recall that racists, demagogues and tyrants throughout history wielded fear as a weapon, agitating decent people to aid and abet some of humanity's most grievous actions and policies. Still, despite the charges of Nazism that followed the Arizona measure, it would be a stretch to equate the leadership of the anti-immigration clique to Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin. But there are disquieting implications following each successive volley lobbed by that leadership. It's been years since the Minutemen fired off the warning shots, and decades before the self-commissioned sentinels got up in arms and illegal immigration became a national firestorm -- Tom Tancredo stood as a solitary outpost, shooting from the mouth about the usurpation of American laws and culture in the 70s. Portraying a latter-day Paul Revere, he might not have upgraded the chant to "The Mexicans are coming ... the Mexicans are coming," and he didn't view the onslaught as a military but a cultural threat, but he sounded an alarm about imminent invasion and portended the collapse of the American identity if unheeded.

As the illegal immigration controversy became a household hot-topic, so did Tancredo's name. The result is well over a decade of widespread anger, confusion and unproductive stasis. The rhetoric has riled people, promoting an "us against them" mentality, spurred by perceived threats to social and financial security. Critics of immigration reform have assumed Tancredo's stance and rhetoric, not only referencing the rule of law and overtaxed public services, but also danger to supposedly sacrosanct and unalienable rights like All-American tradition (even though that tradition is a concoction infused with immigrant culture) alongside social and financial instability.

While Arizona has become the default entry for unofficial immigration, or to hear critics describe it, an illicit portal to the American Dream's promises and possibilities, the surge of Latino immigrants in the last decade has only recently introduced much of America to the people and culture beyond an occasional appearance in a sitcom or movie. When the New York Times Magazine reported on the explosive issue in Carpentersville, Illinois in 2007, the Midwestern locale was a microcosm of the broader, national situation. At the time, I wrote, "People are inherently leery of the unknown. Just as the primary force spurring the illegal immigration explosion is economics, the impetus behind the backlash is fear." For much of America the fear is fresh and raw; too often exploited and distilled in sound bites and snapshots.

All of which makes the precedent of Arizona's new law more insidious. Other states with a relatively recent introduction to the Latino population and culture equate the illegal immigration drama with brown faces and a Spanish accent. The potential for profiling in Arizona is substantial, but in other areas, it could be de facto, no matter the assurances and safeguards to the contrary. A real threat exists that Latinos, whether American citizens, legal immigrants or illegal immigrants, could become a suspect class.

It's possible that Latino citizens could feel like aliens in their own country. The fear of suspicion and scorn could lead to the same sort of cultural shame experienced by my family and those similar from New Mexico in the mid-20th century. The desire to assimilate and embrace opportunity led parents and teachers to encourage children to shed their culture, language and accent. Today, many of us mourn the lost heritage and opportunity to learn Spanish as a second language while children. Then there is the danger of perpetuating a pecking order among Latinos. I recall the term "mojados," a pejorative for Latinos without papers, and used by my childhood Latino friends who, like my family, hailed from New Mexico. Already viewed as second-class, crass and naïve by much of the Anglo population, many of us wanted to distinguish and distance ourselves from any additional derogatory. The division between legal and illegal erected a wall between the two subsets, forcing a need to separate stigma that has besieged Latino immigrants for decades.

In recent years, a commonality of culture, pride and identity has helped erase that divide. Continued controversy, the absence of immigration reform and nebulous and potentially nefarious laws like that signed by Gov. Brewer could reverse the progress.

Despite the wrongness ( and suspiciousness) of Arizona's new law, the paramount error is Congressional inaction on comprehensive immigration reform. Without leadership and action at the federal level, and with Americans' broad and bitter division on the issue, similar laws are almost certain to appear elsewhere (a Utah state lawmaker is already expressing an interest). The potential for profiling and stigmatizing will increase. While the immediate uproar will be about Arizona's stringent law signed Friday by Gov. Brewer, the greater uproar should be over the lack of any overall resolution. One suspicion that could be termed "reasonable" is that, in the aftermath of Arizona's law and the accompanying uproar, there will be at least an attempt at immigration reform on the federal level.