By Father Rudolph Juarez
In 1975 I was working in Wisconsin as an interpreter after undergraduate work in Latin American studies in Texas. I remember that summer I walked into a local pizza place in the Wisconsin Dells and went up to what I thought was a couple of Hispanics and greeted them in my best Spanish. Hearing no response, I repeated my greeting. Finally, they looked at me and said in perfect English: “We are Winnebago, not Mexicans.” “Oops,” I thought: “What presumption and ignorance on my part.”
This was not to be the last time presumption and ignorance would get me into trouble. In my last parish in Davenport, you would have thought things had improved, but, no. You see, the Quad-Cities has a long-established Hispanic community. I am talking about people whose grandparents, and whose great- grandparents came to the Quad-Cities in the 1900s to work on the Rock Island Lines.
This came home to me when, after a couple of weddings and funerals at the parish, I learned that it isn’t always easy to tell from appearance what language people speak. I would greet people in Spanish who I thought spoke Spanish and they would say: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” I would greet people in English and they would look at me and say: “No hablo Inglés.” So, I just finally gave up trying to figure out what to say to whom. I couldn’t win for losing.
This is the problem. You can’t win. You can’t assume to always know who someone is, what language they speak or where they are from. And herein is the problem with the new Arizona law which requires people to surrender documentation about their legal status. It isn’t just the law that is problematic, but rather the “enforcement” of the law that will bring trouble. It is problematic, not only for those who will be mistaken for someone or something they are not, but also for local law personnel who have now been given the task of interpreting and enforcing federal immigration law.
This is so wrong-headed, if not illegal, unconstitutional and un-American.
My fear is that this new law will turn Arizona into a “police state” and bring us closer to fascism. “Proof of identity” laws and legislation of the same ilk marked the repressive conditions of the regimes of Communist China, the former Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany. Don’ tell me it can’t happen here, because it can. We must never forget that everyone within the territorial boundaries of the United States is protected by our Constitution regardless of who they are and how they got here. And, everyone, regardless of their legal status has basic human rights and freedoms.
The Arizona law has codified the worst fears and suspicions of some Americans. And say what you will, but, some folks are more likely to end up victims of the law than others. And I guarantee you it will not be the legislators speeding to their power lunch or for an evening cocktail who will get targeted. And, I am sure if they were the ones mistakenly arrested, the cry to heaven would be heard across the world.
Given simple human error, presumption and plain old ignorance, it is clear that this law is fraught with difficulties. What if you leave your wallet at home and drive and get stopped by the police? How do you prove you are not an illegal? Do you look the part? What does an illegal even look like? Say that you are a legal resident and you don’t have your identification card. What if you speak minimal English? In any of these examples you could be in real trouble and end up deported, or in jail; if not for a few days, at least for most of the day when you should have been at work or tending to your children.
The Arizona law is a blatant violation of human rights and human decency. It is an infringement on all of our rights. I can’t imagine the headaches and legal challenges it is going to provoke between law enforcement personnel who will be charged with deciphering federal law and the general public. But, this is what happens when we fail as a nation to take immigration reform seriously.
In Iowa City and Johnson County, the Sanctuary City Committee wants the enforcement of immigration law to remain in the hands of the federal government. The committee is working on an ordinance to state as much, and to declare that in our communities, people, regardless of their legal status, will have their rights and dignity respected and be invited to participate to the level of their status and ability in the benefits and responsibilities that come with living in a free, civil and open society.
(Fr. Juarez is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City.)