This week, Arizona’s governor signed a bill that should be named “Breathing While Brown.” As I understand it, it allows any Arizona law enforcement officer to demand proof of citizenship of anyone whom they encounter.
As one who has loved to travel to Arizona, when I heard this story, I quickly thought: “How in the world could I prove that I’m a U.S. citizen??” Then I quickly realized my passport would do the trick.
But I don’t carry my passport with me when I’m traveling inside the U.S. I keep it safely locked away until I am traveling abroad.
You can see my photo in the sidebar. I’ve a garden-variety American mutt. What are the real odds that an Arizona policeman would ask me to prove my citizenship? I bet they’re virtually nil.
Were I brown-skinned, I would now have to carry my passport or birth certificate with me all the time. And, frankly, I’d be terrified. Because, if I understand correctly, the penalty for “breathing while brown” or otherwise not being able immediately to produce documentation of one’s citizenship will be jail. Jail time at least until one can get someone else to bring in one’s paperwork. For me, that would mean finding a friend willing to break into my apartment, find the correct file cabinet, then retrieve the birth certificate, and bring it to the police station. [I'm assuming my friends wouldn't have the temerity to break into the bank at 10:00 on a Saturday night to retrieve my passport from my safe deposit box.]
I go to church with many, many Africans who have immigrated from Sierra Leone. Would they be given a pass? Or would they have to prove positively that they are here legally?
Worse yet for the brown-skinned people who are targets of the Arizona law. I expect every one of them will be assumed guilty.
My priest is a brown-skinned woman, born in Sri Lanka. I get livid at the notion that she would be subjected to this bigotry.
Arizona’s legislature and governor have said there will be no racial profiling. But how can there not be?? The only way to avoid it will be to require proof of citizenship from everyone - whether it’s the lily-white mayor, the Asian professor, the black banker, the Hispanic business owner, the European tourist, or the Sri Lankan Episcopal priest. The only way Arizona can implement this law constitutionally is to suspect everyone of being an illegal alien.
I believe this should infuriate every American and terrify every visitor. If I were an international visitor to the U.S., I would definitely steer clear of Arizona. No Grand Canyon visit for me!
Now … I am familiar with Godwin’s Law … which suggests that anyone invoking a parallel to Nazism thereby loses the argument. But, really, isn’t this just a bit too similar to the requirement that Jews carry papers and wear a Star of David? I find it spooky.
I am also reminded of the situation of free blacks in the U.S. in the 19th century. They had to carry special papers with them, proving their emancipated state. If one of them was caught without those papers, s/he could be sold back into slavery. And that happened very frequently.
That is the legacy that Arizona’s law seeks to reenact. It’s the legacy of Nazism and slavery. It’s a “guilty until proven innocent” approach that flies in the face of my understanding of our Constitution.
I was pleased and proud today to see the pastoral letter from Arizona’s Bishop Kirk Smith (also available here in Spanish). I am proud to be a member of his tribe! I encourage you to read his letter.
Bishop Smith offers hope and encouragement:
This law does not take effect for 90 days. During that time there will be many court challenges, including those coming from the federal government. The law might be tied up for months and years in litigation, and I believe there is a good possibility it will never go into effect.I hope he is correct. If he is not, this bodes ill for all of us.
To me, the Arizona legislation says we have become a nation of fear rather than a nation of freedom. We have seen it in many other laws all over the U.S. Pluralities in the U.S. (most of whom identify as "conservative" or "Republican") are organizing to pass laws that restrict liberties ... even while they claim to be defending the Constitution and the liberties enshrined therein.
This nation was established as a republic - not as a democracy. To the extent that we put people's rights up to a vote of the majority, you can bet that the minority will lose every time. Whether it's the Hispanics in Arizona, the gays in California, or the smokers in Jefferson City, you can bet that the majority will act as a tyranny against the minority. The brilliance of those who drafted the Constitution is that they wrote in "checks and balances" against a tyranny of the majority. But those who claim to be "conservatives" are eroding those safeguards all over this nation.
Ah, well. I wandered a bit further afield than I intended. Sorry about that.
Back to the original point: What I would next like to hear from Arizona's Bishop Smith is: What can those of us outside Arizona do to turn the tide against this hideous legislation? And I don't mean creating a stupid Facebook page saying "I don't like the Arizona law." I mean real, tangible, and effective means to say "Enough is enough!"