GUEST COMMENTARY: Arizona law instills fear in all citizens

Monday, April 26, 2010 | 2:33 p.m. CDT; updated 9:31 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 17, 2010

When my grandfather was alive, he would sometimes travel across the country from Connecticut to visit me when I lived in California. On one of those occasions I noticed that he’d brought his passport with him.

“You don’t need to carry a passport when you’re traveling in the United States,” I told him. “It’s America, and you don’t need that here."

A Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by escaping into the Soviet Union, and then evaded Stalin’s grip by fleeing to the relative safety of a displaced person’s camp in occupied Germany after the war, my grandfather’s expression turned grave.

“I never leave home without my papers,” he said, his voice a whisper as if the SS or KGB were listening.

Nothing I said after that could convince him to leave his U.S. passport — the one that he could use to prove his acquired American citizenship — at home. A vestige of the traumatic past he’d endured, I finally realized that entrenched habits are hard to break.

And now, I think maybe he was right after all.

My problem is that I’m an immigrant, too. My mother, my grandfather’s daughter, gave birth to me in a Munich displaced person's camp while she and my father waited for clearance to emigrate to the United States. We finally arrived in New York City in October 1951. I was an 11-month-old refugee. My other problem is the current economy and the fact that my job is in Missouri and my wife’s is in Arizona. I go there about once a month, and with its new “toughest immigration law” in the United States, I must decide whether or not to bring my passport.

The new statute essentially gives Arizona law enforcement officers Gestapo-like powers that they can exercise whenever they have a “reasonable suspicion … that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” At that point, they must make a “reasonable attempt” to determine a person’s immigration status.

There are only two ways for me to prove that I have a right to be here. My naturalization certificate, the one I acquired at age 16, now sits in my safe deposit box acorn brown and brittle with age. Its photo no longer remotely resembles me, and the glue that once held it in place has long since dried and cracked, so the picture floats aimlessly between the folds of the paper.

Then there is my U.S. passport. It seems like such a little thing to carry it, to simply place it in the car’s glove compartment along with the auto registration certificate and the proof of insurance so that I can show it to some police officer who thinks he better ask a “white guy” about his citizenship to avoid claims of racial profiling.

But it’s not that easy. I am so profoundly grateful for America’s embrace, the one that Emma Lazarus described as coming from lady liberty’s lips:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

What this country gave to me, the embodiment of “wretched refuse” from a “teeming shore,” was the opportunity to convert unfettered freedom into a life constructed from my own sense of destiny. And what Arizona is about to take away in more than a symbolic way is the sense that I can exist here without the intrusion of police who can force me to show my papers on a mere whim.

Though I recognize that immigration enforcement is a serious issue that requires decent solutions, those can’t come at my expense or that of millions of others who also sought refuge in a compassionate and caring country. Forty percent of Americans, after all, can trace their roots back to an immigrant who passed through the gates of Ellis Island alone.

What Arizona’s governor Jan Brewer’s signature did on this Senate bill was transform America into a more sinister, repressive place. “She really felt that the majority of Arizonans fall on the side of, ‘Let’s solve the problem and not worry about the Constitution’,” Grant Woods, the former state attorney general who advised Brewer not to sign the law, told The New York Times.

But I’ve decided not to succumb to the fear, to the authoritarian and oppressive law that will gradually erode our democracy and substitute the type of existence that haunted my grandfather until the day he died.

To paraphrase the oft-quoted movie line: “Passports… I don’t have to show you any stinking passports.”

Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.

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Allan Sharrock April 26, 2010 | 4:17 p.m.

There is a difference between showing up announced and going through the process of getting citizenship and breaking the law. But hey don't let a little thing like the law get in the way of doing whatever you feel like. (sarcasm)

(Report Comment)
Kate Long April 26, 2010 | 4:39 p.m.

I can trace my family back to immigrant roots also. But they came here, they followed the law and became citizens. If they don't want to become a citizen then why come here at all?

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 26, 2010 | 5:44 p.m.

Showing your papers, isn't just for immigrants, go downtown Columbia on a weekend, or perhaps be forced to drive through any (illegal?) Gestapo checkpoint, you'll produce 'your papers' alright.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 26, 2010 | 8:00 p.m.

The "Globalists" love illegal imigration, it drives down wages and allows them a steady pool of cheap labor. Nothing against anyone trying to better themselves, I'm all for it, but truth be told is this at the expense of someone else?

Though I tend to disagree with any measure that allows random 'fishing' of citizens and undermines the 4th amend. (and think that part of the bill needs changed) the other parts don't, to me, appear unreasonable.

Here's another perspective, that shares some numbers (don't take these as gospel, do your own research), but I'm not sure ILLEGAL imigration is good for anyone (other than those who love slave labor).

(Report Comment)
Sean Coder April 26, 2010 | 8:49 p.m.

Great piece, Michael. To the comments above... I would ask that you try to understand that this is a much more nuanced situation and that questions such as: "If they don't want to become a citizen then why come here at all?" are very ignorant and don't seem to care for any true answer, but rather to accuse folks of being bad people.

First of all "they" includes a lot of people, not just some hegemonic group that wants to take your job. Secondly, "they" don't want your job, these migrant workers tend to want to make enough money to support their families which is growing nearly impossible because of factors such as NAFTA.

It's a messy situation, one that deserves not to be quickly swept under any rugs by ignorance. Please open your mind.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 26, 2010 | 9:22 p.m.

My mind is open.But I don't see anything of substance in your reply that has anything to do with my comments, at least not in a meaningful way. Did I state something that was inaccurate? You seem to have sidestepped the issue of legal vs. illegal immigration.

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Dale Jones April 26, 2010 | 9:35 p.m.

Right on Carl.....justification of illegal law breakers by some show their lack of respect of our laws. My grandfather came to the USA in 1877 and play by the rules resulting in his family making contributions to our country. I am tired of all these people saying" they need bread, so its ok to break our laws". I guess if I am broke, then I can go rob a convenience store because I am hungry. Legal vs Illegal is a no-brainer!! Illegals need to be put in jail or deported per our law. Our irresponsible government officials have allowed this very sick situation to exist. If I am not doing anything wrong,I could care less if someone wants to check my papers, especially if it would help control this illegal immigration sick situation.

(Report Comment)
Sean Coder April 26, 2010 | 11:58 p.m.

Actually, I don't disagree with anything you said, Carl. My disagreement lies more with Kate's comment. Though I do disagree with your comment Dale, or rather I see another side. Any law the United States attempts to make to control the border of a stolen territory is just as arbitrary as that border. The fact of the matter is that the United States is on mostly stolen land, and the entire southwest region use to be part of Mexico.
We need to stop blaming people who need to support families, while the fat cats pass racist policies into law.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 27, 2010 | 12:22 a.m.

1- The state of Arizona has acted because the federal government (Congress, Presidents-plural) has failed to act. The federal government is now shamed into acting.

2- Current polls, by independent polling agencies, suggest that Americans have little faith in the federal government's ability to act decisively and in a timely manner on ANY major issue.

3- We can all play the game of "my ancestors were also immigrants," but odds are those ancestors arrived in the United States legally.

4- The United States has an ILLEGAL immigration problem, not an immigration problem.

5- All that said, it's amazing. We are characterized by some abroad and others here at home* as being such awful people, and yet here are these people willing to even risk their lives to illegally enter this country. As my wonderful German grandmother would have put it, "Mein Gott!"

*- Who obsess constantly about what others in the world might think of us.

(Report Comment)
Sean Coder April 27, 2010 | 8:51 a.m.

Respectfully Ellis, I'm sorry but legality is not the true issue here. The southwest United States was ILLEGALLY stolen from Mexico in the first place. This is truly a game of land claims and who's side you want to take.
The sad part is that while we sit here philosophizing over who's right and who's wrong, there are human realities on the ground level that are dire. To reduce a a fellow human being's plight to illegal is to miss the reality

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote April 27, 2010 | 11:08 a.m.

I think this is a terrible precedent. Defenders of the new law are pointing to the problem of illegal immigrants, as a defense of the law. From my perspective, this law is bad, not because of how it treats illegal immigrants, but rather how it treats legal residents and US citizens. Here's the Fourth Amendment to the constitution:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
The Arizona law is in affect saying that one's ethnicity is probable cause that a law (a federal immigration law) has been violated, thus allowing for a search of one's papers. Frankly, I find that sentiment contrary to the principles of a free democratic society.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 27, 2010 | 11:20 a.m.

The real issue here is the failure of the federal government to confront this situation, and it is more than a matter of one political party or the other. A broader issue is what's looking like dysfunctionality in the federal government's legislative branch.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock April 27, 2010 | 4:42 p.m.

Sean you keep saying we took the land from Mexico illegally if that was the case why hasn't Mexico sued? There really isn't any land in the world that wasn't taken from somebody else at some point. So your argument really doesn't hold any water.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 27, 2010 | 5:08 p.m.

The land presently occupied by the states of New Mexico and Arizona saw it's first "European" settlers in 1598 (no, that's not a typo). Santa Fe was founded in 1610, 10 years before the Pilgrims showed up in what is now Massachusetts. At that time the land in the Southwest belonged to Spain. After Mexican independence the land belonged to Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, following the Mexican War.

I agree with Shane - the War with Mexico wasn't one of our finer historical moments! However, part of the land constituting the two states (the southern part) was legally purchased from Mexico via the Gadsden Treaty, at what could be termed a fair price.

It was not until 1912 that Arizona and New Mexico became states.

Santa Fe is the oldest U.S. city that's a state capital, and is the state capital at the highest altitude (7,000 feet). It's easy to get sunburned in Santa Fe, even in January. :)

(Report Comment)
Sean Coder April 28, 2010 | 9:54 a.m.

It would seem we all are in some sort of agreement about this being an issue that needs further addressing, no?

Allan, I would maintain that we stole the land... and that I don't think "we" really have any authority to make racist laws in that space as a result. But maybe I'm just too much of an idealist? I say this completely seriously.

By the way, for anyone not in the loop:

(Report Comment)
Dan Dothage April 28, 2010 | 8:05 p.m.

Why people can't take a look at the real problem? The problem is not LEGAL the path your parents followed when they came to America. From your own writings, Mr. Grinfeld, your parents "...waited for clearance to emigrate to the United States." They followed the law.

The real problem is ILLEGAL immigration...I wish there were a bold option....IL-legal. C'mon, you're an educated fellow...the IL portion of that term means NOT legal. Why should law enforcement officials be prohibited from enforcing the law?

Mr. Grinfeld, this law does not prevent LEGAL immigrants from having the opportunity to "convert unfettered freedom into a life constructed from my own sense of destiny." Again, it allows law enforcement officials to actually enforce the law.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 28, 2010 | 10:22 p.m.

I agree Mr. Foote, the 4th amend. potential violations are troubling, and I certainly don't support that part of the bill. But, like many commenters here seem to suggest, I think illegal immigration might be better served by legal immigration.

Too, I have to remember in all honesty ALL land just about has been 'stolen' at one time or another, one side of my family was "native American", fought in the war of 1812 for Independence, while the other side of the family chose supporting 'manifest destiny' (yes I use that term sarcasticly) and offered their services.

Most all of us are on 'stolen land' or at least *conquered* land, in fact I guess it would range in the 99% bracket world wide. But could that ever be 'undun', and whose time of ownership would get priority, etc? And how would that be more 'fair' than someone elses?

Something to think about. I obviously don't have all the answers (or perhaps even many) but I' have to say if I was asked to move (after 20 plus years of *working my land*) I wouldn't be at all happy, I realize likely this land I live on was owned by 'one side' of the family at one time, but for now it has switched to 'another side' perhaps in the end it will switch again, I don't know, but I'm not convinced it is in the best interest of most of the people of my state (or nation) who have given so much to make it work, to 'hand things BACK over'. Guess we'll see. Alot of very rich "Globalist" types would like nothing more than to see that.

(Report Comment)
Norlene Weaver April 29, 2010 | 11:44 p.m.

I am a resident of Arizona and for the first time in a very long time I have witnessed a Government Official do something for American citizens. My state has been overrun and overwhelmed with Illegals the cost has been astronomical not only monetary but with the loss of Human life. the rate of crimes have ballooned over the past several years Home Invasions, Human Smugglers, Carjackings.Rapes, Slain police Officers, Drug Runners, Gang Bangers taking over neighborhoods. Marchers in our streets waving the Mexican flag atop the American flag signs saying No law No Borders. We can send our children off to war to defend other Countries from Invading forces but when American citizens try to defend our country from invaders we are compared to War Criminals now this is a profound misguidance of justice for all Americans. Maybe the bleeding hearts should speak with the families of those most effected with the influx of Illegals where is the empathy for your fellow Americans? No where is it written that Americans are responsible to pay for the Education, Incarceration. rehabilitation, welfare, or Health care of Illegals.

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