The new state law is the result of a failed national policy

Arizona’s new immigration law shows what happens when a state on the front lines of a failed immigration policy reaches the bursting point. What you get is a blunt instrument that produces lawsuits, more political polarization (if that’s possible) and the risk of hostility between the local police and the public.

The law makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. without proper documents. It allows the police to stop anyone on “reasonable suspicion” that they may be in the country unlawfully and arrest them on the spot if they can’t produce identity papers. The police aren’t required to have a search warrant or even to suspect some illegal action has occurred before questioning a person. Traditionally the federal government has enforced immigration laws, so this is an extraordinary state criminalization of a heretofore federal authority.

Not every undocumented U.S. resident is Latino, but most are. Given that about one-third of Arizona residents are Latino, opponents of the measure fear it will raise charges of “racial profiling.” The ever-helpful Al Sharpton has already announced that he’s headed to Phoenix. More legal challenges are expected before the law takes effect later this summer.

The loud voices denouncing “Arizona” should understand that the results of the nation’s failed immigration policies have come down on this state. Hundreds of local immigration measures have been enacted nationwide with the goal of restricting access to everything from housing to jobs to drivers’ licenses. As these efforts squeezed the border in the 1990s via three-tier fencing, remote-control cameras and motion-detection devices in Texas and California, Arizona became the major, often violent, entry corridor.

Arizona’s police chiefs association opposed the new law. Local enforcement agencies don’t want responsibility for enforcing national immigration laws because they say it makes them less effective at their day jobs. When people in immigrant communities see the local police as deportation agents, they become less likely to report crimes and help in investigations. Conditions worsen.

Restrictionists insist, with some justification, that these laws are shrinking the illegal population. The larger reality is that border crossings track the economy. The recent downturn has meant fewer illegal entries and more immigrants going home. Before the law, Arizona’s illegal population had fallen 18% in the past year.

Congressional Democrats have no intention of enacting serious immigration reform before November. President Obama is surely playing politics with the situation in Arizona for gain in the fall. He’d like to pick a fight and define Republicans as anti-Hispanic going into the election, without having to propose anything substantive.

We’d support a national immigration reform that was realistic about the fact that most of these are economic migrants who will find a way to come here in any case if this is where the jobs are. The most effective way to reduce illegal entries and defuse these tensions is to expand legal channels, including guest worker programs. This would reduce illegal immigration and free up security resources to threats from drug gangs and the like.

But so long as Republicans, Democrats and Mr. Obama mainly view immigration as an electoral weapon, the nation can expect more desperate laws like Arizona’s.