Guest Opinion

A modest proposal: Make all Arizonans produce their papers

Having lived in Colorado for all of my 59 years, I've certainly suffered from immigration. It's cost me a job or two because immigrants from the East Coast went to better schools and boasted more impressive résumés. I've had to compete against well-heeled California immigrants for housing.

After these immigrants settle in, they assault our customs and culture. They're always in a hurry, so they drive too fast. They try to outlaw humble items that offend their aesthetic sensibilities, like woodpiles, junk cars and clotheslines. If they hail from California, then they push our schools to focus on improving self-esteem rather than grammar or biology.

But irksome as those immigrants may be, they're not getting the headlines these days. Instead, it's Arizona's new immigration law—the one that cracks down on undocumented immigrants, requiring anyone reasonably suspected by police of being an immigrant to produce papers.

Long before the Arizona law was proposed, I'd sometimes get asked how I thought America should handle immigration from Mexico. I'd usually cite Edward Abbey's idea: Catch them at the border. Issue rifles and ammunition, then send them back to Mexico to fix whatever there is about that nation that compelled them to leave it.

Then again, Mexican immigrants are part of the American tradition. Like my own ancestors, they come to the United States in hopes of a finding a better life. You can't hate people for that.

I'm enough of a history buff to know that the border is basically just a line drawn by politicians. Every afternoon, when I walk my dog on the east side of the Arkansas River, I'm crossing what was the U.S.-Mexican border for a quarter of a century. The boundary hasn't always been where it is today. Still, national borders are supposed to mean something.

But what should be done? Neither major political party is going to be of much help here. Consider the options:

• They're lawbreakers, so round 'em up. Most estimates put the undocumented population at about 12 million people. Could we hire enough cops and provide enough holding facilities? Could we conduct fair hearings with due process before we transport them south for hundreds of miles? We're talking about 240,000 busloads of people here.

• Build a better fence. Unfortunately, as many have observed, a 10-foot-high border fence just leads to 11-foot ladders. Ignore for a moment the environmental issues that come from fragmenting habitat along the 1,969-mile border, and consider that the Great Wall of China failed to keep Manchu "immigrants" out of the Celestial Kingdom. Also note that most of the violence along the Arizona-Mexico border comes from drug-smugglers. As the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero noted, "There is no fortress so strong that money cannot take it."

• Penalize employers. The Populists suggested this back in 1892, when their platform denounced "imported pauperized labor" that "beats down wages." But I've been an employer. It did not give me any special expertise in determining whether identification documents were forged, or if an applicant was telling the truth about his birthplace (which I couldn't ask about anyway, since it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of national origin). It's not hard to imagine how a lot more employment discrimination could develop if there was more enforcement aimed at employers.

I don't see any realistic near-term solution to America's immigration issues. But I do have one suggestion for Arizona: The state should demand documents from everyone—even if you're blond and blue-eyed and have no trace of an accent. You'd still need to produce proof of citizenship to check out a library book or to pay a water bill. This approach would avoid even a hint of racial or ethnic profiling, so there would be no reason to boycott the state. And eventually, Arizona's beleaguered residents would put serious pressure on the Legislature or mount a repeal initiative.

For as Ulysses S. Grant stated in his first inaugural address, "I know of no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution." Let's support some "stringent execution" in Arizona, and see how long that law lasts.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (