The passage of Arizona's mean-spirited Proposition 200 is a cautionary tale for the Bush administration, showing the extremes to which fed-up state voters will go when their concerns about illegal immigration are ignored for too long by the federal government. The initiative is a slightly milder version of California's notoriously divisive Proposition 187, passed in 1994 but thrown out by the courts in part because it conflicted with federal law.
As in any other border state, immigration has played a key role in Arizona's history -- from Spaniards to Mexicans to Europeans, and now a new wave from Central America.
In the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol cut off entries to the U.S. along urban border areas. That pushed would-be immigrants to wild, unpopulated desert areas, primarily in Arizona. Thousands have died attempting to cross the state's forbidding terrain. Most of those who made it traveled on to other states, but some stayed on in cities like Tucson and Phoenix. The masses of immigrants also provided opportunities for smugglers of both humans and drugs. The supply of cheap labor in the state increased, but just as in California, Arizona's schools, hospitals and public services felt the strain.
The state's congressional delegation has worked over the last year to develop proposals for an orderly and federally regulated immigration process. It should be given the chance to succeed, without being undercut by shortsighted initiatives like Proposition 200.
The measure requires proof of citizenship when voting or registering to vote. Sounds OK, but how many people have a birth certificate or passport right at hand? And would it be applied to everyone, not just people who "look like immigrants"? It also requires such proof when applying for "public benefits" -- which could mean emergency room care or a library card, because there is no clear definition of such services. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based anti-immigration organization, was the chief funder of the measure.
In addition, state workers are required to report to federal authorities any illegal immigrants trying to receive welfare services, or face a possible four-month jail sentence. Such problems prompted the conservative Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper, to devote seven editorials to the measure out of concern over the likelihood of unintended consequences.
Most likely, Proposition 200 won't survive the lawsuits it will provoke. But it demonstrates a problem in need of immediate federal attention. Someone in power needs to hear the frustrations of ordinary people who have witnessed the strain on their state and to heed the suffering of the masses crossing the desert.