07/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Arizona Law Endangers America's Immigrant Heritage

One of the oldest debates in America has been on the issue of what the nation's immigration policy should be. Should it be fair and compassionate? Should it be restrictive?

In the past, as now, nativism, bigotry and fear of competition from foreign workers dulled the collective American memory of its own immigrant history and democratic ideals. Then, as now, the drums of anti-foreigner slogans are beat in an effort to make the case for a restrictive immigration policy.

In his book, A Nation of Immigrants, President John F. Kennedy wrote of immigration, "This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action."

In his last presidential address to the nation on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan spoke about his vision of America as a "shining city upon a hill... teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace." If there had to be city walls, in his vision "the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there."

Today, unfortunately, Kennedy's "spacious society" is being closed in and darkness is enveloping Reagan's "shining city." There is no harmony and peace -- especially in Arizona. Instead, there is hate, fear, and xenophobia.

Much has been said about Arizona's new law, which requires the police to demand proof of legal residency from residents who arouse suspicion. The police do not need probable cause to suspect a crime has been committed -- anyone who "looks foreign" can be stopped. The law virtually invites the police to harass and intimidate Hispanics and other minorities. Obviously, it discourages minority victims of and witnesses to hate crimes from coming forward and helping local law enforcement solve those crimes. It gives untrained state and local police officers the responsibility for enforcing immigration law even though such responsibilities interfere with their responsibility to keep the peace. The law even encourages people to sue the police if they believe immigration laws are not being enforced.

Of course, the Arizona law was not enacted in a vacuum. The immigration debate has become a flashpoint for racists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other extremists who blame immigrants for all of our nation's problems. It is a very short distance from that sort of rhetoric to vigilantism. When mainstream figures start expressing the same bigotry, filling the airwaves and the Internet with hateful and incendiary talk, an atmosphere is created for incivility and pernicious legislation is not far behind.

The Arizona law is probably unconstitutional, and will be challenged in the courts. But all of us have a responsibility to look in the mirror and say -- how could such a mean-spirited measure become law in this country? Do we really want our nation to resemble societies where anyone can be stopped on the streets at any time, at the slightest whim, and be asked for identification papers?

The Arizona approach to addressing the current immigration crisis is the wrong approach. It happened at a time when our nation is deeply divided along partisan lines. The time has come for Congress to demonstrate bipartisan leadership, condemn xenophobia, and enact comprehensive immigration reform that has an appropriate balance of fairness, compassion, and security.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. He and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1950.