The case of Arizona v. United States now before the Supreme Court shines a light on how the complexity of the American identity is wrapped in the immigration debate. Since the federal government created the U.S. Immigration Bureau in 1864, the question of who is let in to the country permanently, temporarily, or not at all has always been tied to the politics of identity and the viability of the economy.
Identifying an immigrant versus a citizen is a process that includes profiling, separation, and exclusion. But how do you profile an American? Over time, PR agencies have helped shape the American identity around apple pie, blond hair, baseball and blue eyes. Anyone else who did not fit into this category either took on a second class citizenship or hid in the shadows, praying to stay, but ready for deportation.
Times are good? America welcomes you. Times are rough? America cracks down. This pattern of campaigning to attract and reject the “others” has revealed itself like clockwork throughout our history, so why be concerned that the same conditions are driving the current debate on the constitutionality of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, S.B. 1070?
Since many Americans and their political leaders are still caught up on promoting our differences versus our similarities, we have those who buy into the "us vs. them" mentality, which drives our policy and enforcement process. Just as there were states that condoned slavery, and others did not. Just as some states currently respect marriage equality, and others do not.
The federal government is not off the hook here. Laws to expand state power and identity are on the rise because national leadership keeps passing the buck on when and how to take action. It’s campaign season for much of Washington’s public officials where the priority is to stay balanced on the tightrope of power. They are in no position to lead states to a solution with federal comprehensive immigration reform. The only section of the federal government free and clear to respond is the judicial branch. A Supreme Court ruling in support of the constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law will help expand state’s rights and their ability to dictate conditions within their borders.
Instead of a national discourse on American identity and how it relates to forming and enforcing humane, protective, and fiscally responsible immigration policy, state’s determined to tip on the side of exclusion versus inclusion may let xenophobia be their guide.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has already taken a preemptive strike against the possibility that the Supreme Court will decide in June to support the Arizona law by proposing legislative blockage of the controversial provisions. President Obama, who revived talk of the DREAM Act in January, has promised to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform as first on the agenda of his second term. In Romney’s thirst for the presidency, he is backing away from his initial support of S.B. 1070 to avoid alienating the Hispanic vote.
As Democrats and Republicans court the Hispanic, black, and female populations for their votes, how the immigration issue is handled over the next six months may be the wildcard ingredient that determines what American identity looks like after the November elections.