Among the telltale signs of a police state is the following question asked randomly and without just cause: "Where are your papers? Show me your papers." This most un-American demand is likely to be heard soon in Arizona, which stands at the brink of having the toughest law in the nation aimed at illegal immigrants.
On Tuesday, the Arizona House passed a bill that says immigrants unable to produce documents showing they are allowed to be in the United States could be arrested and jailed for up to six months. A similar bill previously passed the state Senate and the two bills now need only be reconciled to go to the governor for her signature.
It would be one thing if police asked such a question if a person were suspected of another crime; that is already permitted by Arizona law. But now anyone could be asked about their immigration status if police form a "reasonable suspicion."
It would be extremely naive not to believe that a brown skin or an accent will become that "reasonable suspicion," especially as the new law strongly encourages police departments to ask the question. Indeed, citizens groups will be able to sue to compel police agencies to comply with the law.
While rank-and-file police officers support the measure and deny that they will engage in racial profiling -- perish the thought -- police chiefs oppose it for various reasons, including the cost and the likely distraction from more serious investigations.
In fact, the whole exercise looks like an invitation to trouble in an area where foreign-looking people can turn out to be citizens, and some can trace their family history in the United States back for generations. The trouble will come not just in the filing of lawsuits, but in further corroding community relations. As for Republicans, who are pushing this law in Arizona, they may satisfy their base short term, but in the long run their insensitivity to offending Hispanics, one of the fastest growing minority groups in the nation, is political folly with large implications.
But instead of dismissing this as more evidence of xenophobia, Americans looking at this reckless experiment should recognize that it is also a reaction to a real problem. America's borders are not secure. Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, and law and order is threatened. Just recently, a cattle rancher who was sympathetic to illegal immigrants was found gunned down.
Immigration matters are a federal responsibility. As misguided as it is, Arizona's action reflects the reasonable perception that the federal government has failed in that task. Despite the horror stories about illegal immigrants, many are law-abiding and take menial but important jobs indispensable to the economy. They are part of the equation, too.
President George W. Bush was right about immigration reform. Those who committed the crime of wanting to come to America solely to work toward a better life should have a way to get out of the shadows and get on a path to legal status. Amnesty may be a dirty word, but "Show me your papers" is its own affront to American traditions. The answer to the problem is not to be found in Phoenix, but in Washington, D.C. This is another reminder that it can't be put off much longer.