From copper state to Gestapo state

I have a routine most Sunday mornings. The bells from the church across the street start to ring at 7.50am, which is a signal for me to grab a tie, put on my suit and rush out of the front door - usually not even remembering to bring my wallet. A thoroughly unremarkable spectacle, in other words.

Note: I do all this in the land of the free and the home of the brave, not in Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union. But, by early August, I could be committing a crime if I don't have a driving licence or something similar on me. If a policeman or woman doesn't like the look of me and exposes my effrontery in walking along the street without documentation, I could be thrown in prison for six months and fined $2,500 for such criminal behaviour.

This is not going to happen to me, because I live in Washington, but if you are unfortunate enough to reside in Arizona - the sixth-largest state in the US - the scenario is perfectly feasible. The Republican governor there, Jan Brewer, signed into law a bill known as "SB 1070" on 23 April, giving police who merely have "reasonable suspicion" the right to stop and demand identification from passers-by, who then face incarceration and that heavy fine if they fail to produce those all-important papers. The law comes into effect 90 days after the Arizona legislature goes into recess for the summer, which probably means some point in early August.

“Intolerance and hate"

But where's the outcry, aside from a few early jokes that "Show me your papers" was a phrase coined by the Gestapo? What little indignation there was, alas, has already evaporated. The second reason I would never be stopped and asked for my papers, of course, is that I'm white - but if you're Latino, as 30 per cent of Arizona's population of 6.6 million are, you now face the prospect of constant harassment by the police if they have "reasonable suspicion" that you are "an alien who is unlawfully present in the US".

To hell, then, with the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution, which is supposed to protect you from this kind of thing. "If you
look or sound foreign, you are going to be subjected to never-ending requests [from] police to confirm your identity and to confirm your citizenship," says Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, too, says that the new law "opens the door to intolerance, hate, discrimination and abuse in law enforcement". But is anybody listening up in Washington?

The answer is yes - but very, very nervously. Before the bill was signed into law, President Barack Obama went before the cameras outside the White House and spoke about it for just 64 seconds. He condemned Arizona's new act as "misguided", and said it threatened to "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans".

And the dramatic action the 44th US pre­sident dramatically undertook to take? "I've instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation." Er, very good, Mr President. That might just be enough for Obama to cling to much of the 68 per cent of the Latino vote he won in 2008 when the midterm elections come in six months' time, followed by the presidential extravaganzas in 2012. But immigration is a potentially toxic issue for national Democrats and Republicans, and both sides know it. "We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act," Governor Brewer said with genuine pathos, as she signed the law on 23 April.

While national politicians fiddle in Washington and remain hypnotised with inaction over immigration, individual states and smaller jurisdictions are staring the issue in the face. Arizona, for example, has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants and a 389-mile border with Mexico to police; a recent Rasmussen poll found that 70 per cent of voters in the state want tougher action against illegal immigrants. Brewer, 65, who faces voters herself in November, knows that inaction will result in political annihilation.

Washington's glassy-eyed hypnosis set in three years ago, when the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act 2007 - after being savaged left, right and centre - collapsed in disarray in the Senate. It was left to local politicians to take the heat: according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there were 222 immigration laws enacted and 131 resolutions adopted in 48 states last year alone.

A plague on gringo houses

Because of his record as a strong proponent of immigrants' rights, you would hope that Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, might now be taking the national initiative - but then he, too, faces a tight re-election in November in Nevada, where the population of Latinos is increasing sharply.

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain has been refreshingly open-minded on immigration, but he also faces a tough fight for re-election in none other than Arizona - and has, magically, become an enthusiastic supporter of the state's draconian SB 1070 law.

The supreme irony is that, if anything, it should be the Latinos asking white people for their papers, rather than the other way round. Arizona, after all, was part of Mexico until the 1846-48 American-Mexican wars, when most of its territory was "annexed" by the US, along with Texas, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming - states that so many white Americans see today as being plagued by those damned illegal Mexican immigrants. How incomprehensibly cruel life can be.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger