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Arizona Immigration Law Right on Role of Government

All government actions are not the same.

Arizona’s newly passed law requiring police to determine the immigration status of persons suspected of being in the country illegally has created a firestorm of controversy in all the usual quarters on the left. Democrats and liberal pundits decry the state’s attempt to get a handle on its burgeoning illegal immigration problem as heavy-handed, inherently discriminatory, and racist. President Obama calls the law “misguided,” Rev. Al Sharpton promises “freedom walk” marches in the state if the law is not rescinded within 90 days, and San Francisco—the nation’s pre-eminent “sanctuary city”—has called for a boycott. This criticism is as expected as it is wrong.

But there are some on the right as well who are critical of Arizona’s actions, if not its intent. Among those critics is Matt Lewis, who penned an op-ed that appeared in The Daily Caller yesterday. In his piece, “Avoiding hypocrisy on immigration,” Matt argues that conservatives should be skeptical of the new law on the grounds that it gives too much power to government. Matt is concerned about discrimination against people of color, too. But primarily he thinks that conservatives are principle-bound to oppose the law.

“I can’t help but find the willingness of many conservatives to grant the police unprecedented power to question U.S. citizens in Arizona as somewhat ironic. Conservative activist Grover Norquist has dubbed the conservative movement the “leave us alone coalition,” and as Justice Brandeis might have said, this law infringes Arizonans’ “right to be left alone”—free from government intrusion. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer should have vetoed it.”

First, let’s establish what Arizona’s law does and does not do. It does not empower police to stop random people on the street and demand their papers, Gestapo-style, as many on the left have claimed. The law quite simply requires police to check immigration status with reasonable suspicion only after they have made “lawful contact.” In other words, the police have to have good reason to stop someone for some other reason before even getting to the immigration check. This power is not unprecedented. In fact, police in all 50 states already check immigration status in this way every time they ask for a driver’s license, since in most states, illegals cannot obtain one. Furthermore, the law specifically prohibits racial profiling as a tool. So the worries about discrimination seem themselves to be an emotional overreaction.

The charge of hypocrisy leveled here from the right echoes an argument that liberals and Democrats have used, to great effect, against Republican and tea party activists on the issue of government spending and deficits. Namely, that conservative criticism of the Obama administration’s profligate spending habits should be dismissed because Republicans ran up deficits when they were in charge. Proponents of this rationale often cite the Bush Administration’s “unfunded wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things, to make their case.

What these arguments have in common, and where they go wrong, is that they treat all government actions as inherently the same, without regard to whether or not they spring from a proper role for government as defined by the Constitution. Therefore, spending on a war in Iraq is equal to spending on welfare programs. And government “intrusion” to check immigration status is the same as government restrictions on gun ownership. But this equivalence of government actions is a false one. All government spending is not the same, and neither are all enforcement actions.

Conservatives argue that the government should spend whatever money is necessary to protect the nation from attack, whatever the deficit implications. Defense is a basic responsibility of the federal government, and few but the most ardent liberals would argue that the US should not pay any price in its own defense. Conservative acceptance of deficit spending in this context does not preclude them from arguing that the government should not spend exorbitant sums to provide universal health care, for instance. Despite the Obama Administration’s insistence, health care is not constitutionally mandated. Therefore, conservative criticism of its deficit implications is justified.

Similarly, on immigration, conservatives may rightly argue that Arizona can have its police check the immigration status of people stopped for lawful reasons, while at the same time arguing that the government has no right to intrude somewhere else, as in private health care decisions. One is justified, while the other is not. There is no hypocrisy in expecting the government to enforce its immigration laws and to “leave us alone” when it comes to buying health insurance.

But critics of the Arizona law, left and right, have a bigger problem to contend with. Federal law already requires all resident aliens—i.e. green card holders—to carry their identification papers on them at all times. Arizona, then, has done no more with this law than the federal government itself.

Matt is right to say that immigration is a touchy subject that is fraught with emotion on all sides. Indeed, many of the nation’s political issues are. But in the case of Arizona’s new law, all of the emotional arguments appear to be coming from those who oppose the state’s actions. Conservative supporters of the law need not be reminded to make their arguments on principle. They already are.

Originally published at The Daily Caller.

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