Michael Gerson of the Washington Post and Byron York of the Washington Examiner, two bright men, have engaged in a constructive debate about the Arizona immigration law. You can find the back and forth between them here, here, and here.
My own sense of the law, which is carefully written, is that it’s not nearly as draconian as its critics insist — and much of what defenders of the law have been saying about its actual meaning and effect is in fact correct. The law does not give police the right to stop anyone they want to ask for papers solely based on race or ethnicity. The charges that this law is driven by racism and that Arizona has become a “police state” are extreme and reckless. The vast majority of the people of Arizona are responding to a real and present danger — and most of the American public agrees with them (51 percent v. 39 percent, according to Gallup).
Still, I would oppose the law (as does Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and Karl Rove, among others) on the grounds that it potentially changes for the worse the relationship between the community and the local and state police and risks treating some people as guilty until proven innocent. The Arizona law, in my estimation, nudges things a bit in that direction, which concerns me.
In the hands of responsible police officers — which is to say the vast majority of police officers — it won’t lead to abuse. In the hands of less than responsible police officers, it could, I fear, lead to trouble. The real-world effect of the law — and perhaps its unstated intentions — will be to allow police to heighten scrutiny on Hispanics in the hopes of easing the very real illegal immigration problem. That is the tension inherent in this law. To give priority to one concern over the other doesn’t mean the other argument is invalid or supported by ignorant or malevolent forces.
The final verdict on the Arizona law, I think, depends on how the law plays out in practice. So my judgment on its relative merits and demerits is tentative and open to revision, depending on what we learn from its experience — and this, in turn, depends on which parts of the law passes judicial and constitutional muster.
It’s all pretty wishy-washy, I know, but there you go.