Law wrong on many levels

Arizona's draconian new immigration law is an abomination -- racist, arbitrary, oppressive, mean-spirited, unjust. About the only hopeful thing that can be said is that the legislation, which Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed Friday, goes so outrageously far that it may well be unconstitutional.

The law requires police to question anyone they "reasonably suspect" of being an undocumented immigrant -- a mandate for racial profiling on a massive scale. Legal immigrants will be required to carry papers proving they have a right to be in the United States. Those without documentation can be charged with trespassing and jailed for up to six months.

Activists for Latino and immigrant rights -- and supporters of sane governance -- held weekend rallies denouncing the new law and vowing to do everything they can to overturn it. But where was the tea party crowd? Isn't the whole premise of the tea party movement that overreaching government poses a grave threat to individual freedom? It seems to me that a law allowing individuals to be detained and interrogated on a whim -- and requiring legal residents to carry identification documents, as in a police state -- would send the tea partiers into apoplexy. Or is there some kind of exception if the people whose freedoms are being taken away happen to have brown skin and might speak Spanish?

And what is the deal with Sen. John McCain? The self-proclaimed practitioner of "straight talk" was once a passionate advocate of sensible, moderate immigration reform. Now, facing a primary challenge from the right, he says he supports the new law, which is as far from sensible and moderate as it could possibly be. Are six more years in the Senate really worth abandoning what seemed like bedrock principles? Or were those principles always situational?

Let me interrupt this tirade to point out that while Arizona has unquestionably done the wrong thing, it's understandable that exasperated officials believed they had to do something. Immigration policy and border security are federal responsibilities, and Washington has failed miserably to address what Arizonans legitimately see as a genuine crisis.

Arizona has become the preferred point of entry for undocumented workers, and an estimated 460,000 are in the state at any given time. I've spent a morning at the Mexican consulate in Phoenix, which is usually crowded with recent immigrants; only the most naive observer would think even most of them were in the country legally. The influx imposes an unfair burden on the state, and for years Arizonans have been imploring federal officials to do something about immigration reform and border control -- to no avail.

But the new law isn't a solution. On the contrary, it will make the problems worse. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon -- who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling proponents of the law "bitter, small-minded and full of hate" -- hopes to file a lawsuit against the state arguing that local police are now being forced to fulfill a federal responsibility.

One of the problems with the law treating undocumented immigrants as criminals is that it gives those without papers a powerful incentive to stay as far away from police as possible. This will only make it more difficult for local police to investigate crimes and track down fugitive offenders, because no potential witness who is undocumented will come forward.

And how are police supposed to decide whom they "reasonably suspect" of being in the country illegally? Aggressive enforcement of the law would seem to require demanding identification from anybody who looks kind of Mexican. Or maybe just hassling those who look kind of Mexican and also kind of poor.

Arizona is dealing with a real problem and is right to demand that Washington provide a solution. But the new immigration law isn't a solution at all. It's more like an act of vengeance. The law makes Latino citizens and legal residents vulnerable to arbitrary harassment -- relegating them to second-class status -- and it is an utter disgrace.

Contact Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.