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updated: 1/3/2011 1:52 PM

Wrongheaded again on illegal immigration

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California and Arizona share a common border and a common destiny, despite the reluctance of each to admit it and best efforts of each to avoid it.

Now, one shortsighted Californian wants to emulate Arizona and make his state inhospitable to illegal immigrants. Tea party activist and rogue Republican Michael Erickson wants to place an Arizona-style immigration law on the 2012 California ballot. The Support Federal Immigration Law Act requires state and local police officers to determine the immigration status of individuals if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally. In a feeble attempt to avoid the legal pitfalls that befell the Arizona law, this time, state and local officers would have to try to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement to verify a suspect's immigration status before taking anyone into custody.

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It's a meaningless distinction. Before contact is made, the local officers would, in fact, have custody. Thus, they would be detaining the individual without the constitutional authority to do so. Besides, the Arizona law set back community relations by making immigrants fearful of local police. Even if local police do communicate with federal officials, the same thing will happen here.

And so, once again, thanks to this cut-and-paste immigration proposal, we have a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling. In the real world of policing, law enforcement officers can't begin to guess about whether someone is in the country illegally without considering race and ethnicity.

The proposed California measure would also outlaw sanctuary cities. And it would make it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work while concealing their immigration status, and another state crime for an employer to hire an undocumented immigrant whether deliberately or negligently.

Erickson and I agree on this much: Sanctuary cities should be banned for the sake of consistency. If it's wrong for local cities and states to enforce immigration law, then it must be wrong for them to defy immigration law. Neither the extreme right nor the extreme left seems to understand this.

Yet the part about employers will get sticky. Without illegal immigrant labor, the state's $30 billion a year agribusiness industry would shrivel up like a raisin. Besides, note the word "negligently." Built into the current system is the plausible deniability that allows employers to pretend they have no idea the people they hire are in the country illegally. But, if this law passes, those folks could be heavily fined for "negligently" breaking immigration laws. Such wording might be too broad, and impossible to enforce.

Erickson needs to collect the signatures of 433,971 voters by April 21 to qualify the initiative for the ballot. He should have no trouble gathering the ink, despite resistance from the California Republican Party. The GOP is rightfully terrified that the measure might succeed of ridding California not of illegal immigrants but of Republicans. In a state where one in five voters is Latino and where the GOP brand is already toxic to that community, this would be the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I've come to love both these states. I'm a Californian, born and bred. And in the late 1990s, I was a reporter at a newspaper in Phoenix. One day, I drew the assignment of driving out to the California desert to cover unrest about, of all things, a billboard. An anti-illegal immigration group had paid for an advertisement on the California side of the state line, warning visitors from Arizona about what could happen if they weren't careful.

"Welcome to California, the Illegal Immigrant State," the sign read. "Don't let this happen to your state."

Years later with its harsh immigration law, Arizona scared off what demographers estimate were a few hundred thousand illegal immigrants. As a result, Arizona might have lost more than it bargained for. Instead of getting two congressional seats through the reapportionment process, as it did in 2000, the state came up 328,000 residents short (the census counts illegal immigrants as well as legal residents). And so it will now only get one. And according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, the immigration law also cost the state as much as $141 million in lost convention business. All because of a law that was gutted by a federal judge and will be tied up in court for years.

California, welcome to Arizona where they believe that the best way to get rid of unwanted houseguests is to set fire to your house. Don't let this happen to your state.


• Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

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