On its face it seems so sane and simple: a new Arizona law that “requires local police to enforce federal immigration regulations.” What is wrong with that? Enforcing existing regulations is a good thing, right? Except that it is not for the states to enforce federal regulations. So what are the federal regulations in question? What is the purpose of immigration policy? And what is the issue Arizona is actually trying to address with its state law?

I have spent no small amount of time over the last few weeks trying to wrap my head around these questions. You see, I was raised in an America of opportunity, the land of Lady Liberty who welcomes the huddled masses. We are a nation of immigrants–interlopers who were not invited, but dared to imagine a better life for ourselves and our children. What I’ve discovered is that we come at this debate from so many perspectives with as many legitimate concerns as fear-based reactions. Here’s a short list:

Young Latinos at the Immigration Rally on the National Mall.

Young Latinos at the Immigration Rally on the National Mall. Courtesy Pacific News Service / New America Media, 2010.

  • National security – terrorism
  • National security – drug policy
  • Jobs, wages & economic security
  • Resource scarcity
  • The American Dream
  • Immigrant labor, domestic and farm work
  • Human rights
  • Health care
  • Race relations and racial justice

You can expand on any of these topics and have a whole debate. You can use any of these lenses to incite fear and panic. I think that this is one of the most frustrating parts of this debate: how it is part of a larger trend in American politics to blame all the issues we face on some “other.” We think our legal system is too good for “those people,” or that we’re tired of paying for health care for “them,” and why don’t “they” just get a job? Oh, because “those” people are taking jobs away from decent, hardworking Americans.

I think Arizonans have gotten swept up in the Mexican drug wars. I think that when people try to protect themselves from violence, they panic and allow themselves to be swayed by anyone who promises to take control. If you follow the money and explore the groups responsible for this legislation, you will find only hatred and bile.

By all reports, Latinos–”legal” and “illegal”–are now leaving Arizona in droves. This population shift will not stem the tide of drug-related violence. A re-definition of our drug policies and an end to the War on Drugs will have a greater impact on the violence rampant in our urban centers. And the facts around immigration and urban violence are not what you might imagine: a recent preliminary report from the FBI cited a correlation between a decline in violent crimes where immigrant populations are highest–-places like Phoenix, AZ.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have sane immigration policies and consistent border controls.

But fear-mongering and inciting suspicion and hatred should not ever be held up as American values.