Avoiding hypocrisy on immigration

Principled conservatives should be skeptical of Arizona’s recent decision to grant police the power to question illegal aliens (and U.S. citizens) about their immigration status—and to arrest those who cannot show documentation.

The problem, of course, is not what this law does to illegal aliens (who are, by definition, already committing a crime)—but what it does U.S. citizens—many of whom may now endure repeated questioning from police for merely walking down the street.
Much of the problem stems from the words, “reasonable suspicion,” which appear in the bill. After all, illegals don’t advertise their immigration status publicly, and while the law specifically prohibits the police from solely considering race, one can imagine the Arizona police won’t be pulling aside many Canadians, Brits or Swedes for this sort of interrogation.

More likely, the criteria for questioning will include both class and race, meaning that if a Mexican-American lawyer walks down the street in a nice business suit, he’s probably okay, but the law-abiding Mexican-American landscaper may get hassled on a daily basis.

But the truly ironic thing about this debate is that many of the conservatives supporting this law are the very same folks worried about big government’s intrusion into their lives.

Lately, of course, Barack Obama’s imperial presidency—and the rise of the Tea Party movement—has renewed latent worries about the role of Big Brother, and helped reacquaint some conservatives to libertarian ideas.

President Obama and other liberals have irresponsibly demonized Tea Party activists and conservative talk radio hosts, labeling them as potentially responsible for violence. As a result, many conservatives have begun worrying this criticism could have a chilling effect on free speech and the right to dissent politically.  In short, conservatives have recently become more sensitive to the dangers of big government and of the power of the state.  As such, 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.

(There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, mind you. What is more, it is also worth noting that Democrats are anxious to use this Arizona decision to play “politics,” inasmuch as they are hoping it will excite their Hispanic base in the fall).

Of course, conservative proponents of this bill are understandably outraged by illegal immigration—and the federal governments impotence at stopping it. We all should be.

Proponents also cite the example of a Cochise County rancher who was recently murdered by an illegal immigrant.

But while we can all agree the federal government has failed at protecting our boarders, and while we all mourn the loss of this rancher, just as an instance of gun violence should not be used to justify stricter gun laws, neither should the emotional impact of this case determine public policy positions of national significance.

There are many worthwhile steps that must be taken in order to stem illegal immigration, including increasing border security and cutting off the ability of illegals to gain employment once in the United States.

Supporting tough “law-and-order” immigration laws and individual liberty are not mutually exclusive. What is hypocritical, however, is picking choosing when it’s okay for the government to violate citizens’ individual liberty.

Conservatives should exercise philosophical consistency here. This is a bad decision. 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 (R) should have vetoed it.

Matt Lewis is a conservative writer and blogger, based in Alexandria, Va.