Arizona's cautionary tale
Published: Saturday, May 01, 2010
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has taken considerable heat for his well-publicized efforts to correct long-standing problems in Canada's immigration laws and refugee restrictions.
Few dispute that reforms are desperately needed, to reduce the lengthy waiting list for immigrants and narrow the open door for refugees that makes Canada a popular destination for every asylum-seeker — legitimate and otherwise — hoping for a better life in a country that doesn't ask too many questions.
Yet every attempt at fighting even the most flagrant abuses produces an outcry from special interest groups (the immigration bar, especially) that have a vested interest in the current system. Ottawa is accused of “slamming the door” on desperate foreigners in search of a welcoming home; or of putting Canada's own selfish interests ahead of those unfortunate enough to be born in less prosperous countries.
But anyone questioning the need for a clear, fair and enforceable approach to immigration need only look south to Arizona, which this week put into place America's toughest immigration law.
Signed a week ago by Governor Jan Brewer, the law allows law enforcement officials to request documentation proving a person is legally allowed to stay in the U.S. from anyone whom the police suspect may be an illegal immigrant. As well, it gives them the power, without a warrant, to arrest someone if the officer has “probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offence that makes the person removable from the United States.”
Opponents maintain the law is an open invitation to racial profiling, which of course it is: Arizona's illegal immigrant population originates primarily across the border in Mexico, meaning police attention will all but certainly focus exclusively on Hispanics. In effect, it makes every person in the state with Latino features a permanent suspect, liable to being questioned any time police deem they have “reasonable suspicion” to do so. There are about two million Hispanics in Arizona, 30% of the population, who are there legally and may have family roots stretching back generations, but who can be asked to justify their presence any time they are caught listening to a Spanish radio station.
One Arizona congressman, a Hispanic, has urged a boycott of his own state to protest the measure. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County near Tucson, an Arizona police officer for 52 years, called the law “racist” and “stupid,” and said he would not enforce it. A rash of legal challenges are already underway.
While the Arizona law is too draconian, it also offers a clear lesson for Canadians on what happens when the public loses confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of existing laws, and the ability of authorities to enforce them.
Illegal immigration has been a critical concern in much of the southwestern United States for years, and is blamed for spiralling crime rates and a dramatic rise in violence thanks to the growing links between American gangs and Mexico's ruthless drug trade. Past efforts to crack down via a massive police presence, constant border patrols and even construction of a border fence have largely failed, turning much of the southern end of the state into a no man's land where border police, illegals and drug gangs engage in a constant, murderous game of hide and seek.
While Arizona residents recognize the extreme nature of the new law, many support it out of frustration at the failure of existing strategies to stem the tide of illegals. A Texas state legislator says she plans to introduce a similar bill, even though Governor Rick Perry — a conservative Republican — said he has doubts about the Arizona approach.
Canada is fortunate in that we have nowhere near the sort of illegal immigration problem that the United States has. Nevertheless, Canadians sometimes exhibit an analogous frustration when they hear stories about criminals or terrorists who resist deportation for years by cynically playing the appeals process and court system.
Generally speaking, immigrants work hard and do well in Canada: Indeed, we rely on them to shore up a workforce that otherwise would be shrinking due to the aging of the population. But the spectacle of bogus refugee applicants, in particular, besmirches the reputation of all the other newcomers.
It is good that the Conservatives are taking the initiative now, before the situation gets out of hand. It is essential that they produce a workable solution that prevents the sort of anger that has driven Arizona to embrace a radical approach.
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