Sen. Pearce vs. Cardinal Mahony: Leaders Behaving Badly

In a move that has sparked controversy nationwide, Arizona state Senator Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, has successfully promoted a bill that requires state law enforcement, among related jurisdictions, to aid in federal immigration law enforcement. The state senator’s most outspoken critic, Roger Mahony, Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, writes on his blog:

I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation. Are children supposed to call 911 because one parent does not have proper papers? Are family members and neighbors now supposed to spy on one another, create total distrust across neighborhoods and communities, and report people because of suspicions based upon appearance?

Mahony’s words are provocative — arguably, even, a cheapening comparison to the horrors Communist and Nazi victims experienced. Yet they come on the heels of an audacious personal attack: The Los Angeles Times reports Sen. Pearce told syndicated radio talk show host Michael Smerconish “This guy has a history of protecting and moving predators around in order to avoid detection by the law. He has no room to talk [on the illegal immigration issue].”

Sen. Pearce may be well within the protections of the First Amendment, but he has far overstepped the bounds of responsible speech. Cardinal Mahony, however, has some confession of his own to do: Dredging up a very painful historic reality in contrast to a hypothetical and alarmist outcome.

It’s time for a time-out.

What is lost in the fervor is key: Whether liberals and conservatives wish to agree on it or not, there is, in fact, a middle ground between assertions of bigotry and racism and all-out denial that we face a violent drug war that is increasingly spilling over the border. For every 100 people who cross the border to do an honest day’s work, there are others who use innocent, albeit illegal, civilians for cover. Pearce’s legislation, conceivably, would no more guarantee the dehumanizing search-and-seizures that Cardinal Mahony alleges than carrying a driver’s license or state identification — a fact of life most Americans accept — attracts undue attention from law enforcement. Police officers, after all, are mandated by the Constitution to exercise “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” — the commission of a crime, essentially — before questioning an individual.

SB 1070 is not an excuse for police-state abuse.

Mahony and his backers nevertheless perpetuate the stereotype that Americans are easy to profile. The assumption that Arizona law enforcement will harass minorities, for instance, presumes there are no minorities to be found on the police force — a red herring that tacitly reinforces yet another stereotype in which illegal aliens are conceived of as little more than loitering latinos awaiting day jobs outside of Home Depot. Such attitudes, moreover, fail to reflect a demographic shift that has been gaining momentum for decades: In a number of states minorities are fast approaching — or in fact comprise — the majority of the population. Consequently, the very notion that Arizona’s immigration law will make it easy to single out those who reside here illegally rests on an ethnocentric them-versus-us premise in which law enforcement personnel are uniformly “white males” as opposed to diverse reflections of their respective communities. For the law to be abused in the way Mahony predicts, one must also assume that everyone in a position of authority is guilty until proven innocent. Not only does such an argument fly in the face of American legal tradition, it’s unscriptural to boot.

Not everyone has an ax to grind — but keep it up and they just might.

Increasingly, we share a mixed-heritage society in which young adults, in particular, rarely question multilingual classrooms, billboards, product packaging, restaurant menus, voicemail systems, work environments and the like. These are simply the facts of life in modern-day America. And yet we have the ghosts of racist Americana past attempting to bequeath their cultural battlefronts to the next generation. In one such case, a neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement rally in Los Angeles Saturday, April 18 resulted in five arrests and one injury when approximately 500 angry counter-protesters confronted the ugly demonstration. Had the counter-protesters realized that skinheads and their ilk would like nothing more than the free publicity of a clash — if not hate groups’ long-held fantasy of a race war — perhaps they wouldn’t have been so quick to take the bait. Similarly, how do prominent critics and power brokers on either side of this issue respond to the probability that instead of healing old cultural wounds their egregious rhetoric is tearing them wide open?

He who slings mud also wears it.

Ironically, the argument that racism is at play in any and all legislative attempt to fix our broken borders is a nascent admission on the part of those who protest the loudest that they conceive of the world in outmoded generalizations. Worse, the act of scapegoating is itself an exercise in projection — calling upon others to attack the very evils one fails to recognize within oneself. And at best, the notion that doom-and-gloom lies around every corner is known in psychological parlance as “catastrophizing“.

Hysteria rarely serves the greater good.

Will the passage of SB 1070 yield “unforeseen consequences”? Of course. Will some in Arizona state government fail to comply no matter what immigration policy is on the books? Absolutely! Does the ACLU have the right to express concern over due process? Yes. For now, however, it is time for the high-profile voices on either side of this issue to take a deep breath. Exaggeration and fear-mongering are useful tools of debate — but they are no substitute for honesty.

Truth, if it is to be found at all, lies on that middle ground the intellectually dishonest rarely tread upon.

If we are to conceive of immigration reform that neither ignores nor abuses illegal immigrants yet does not condone or encourage mayhem and violence we must move beyond polemics into the realm of statesmanship. Political temperance is a lost art and an idealistic wish, true. But in these divisive times statesmanship is also a higher calling — a pragmatic if not moral duty on the part of church and government leaders alike.

To the powers that be: Step up to the plate.

And to those who claim to speak on behalf of the rest of us: Shame on you who seek a boost to your own political and personal popularity among our polarized populace at the expense of tangible progress.

It’s time to elevate this issue from trash talk to constructive dialog.

We can do better than what presently passes for immigration reform debate.

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