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Originally published Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 10:54 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

'Misguided' Arizona may prod the federal government into action

Harassing countless innocents alongside illegal immigrants is a callous and futile way to stop massive flows of undocumented workers, writes columnist Froma Harrop. The more successful approach is to remove the job magnet by fining and possibly jailing their employers.

Syndicated columnist

President Obama is right that Arizona's tough immigration law is "misguided." And Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is right that her state has been "more than patient waiting for Washington to act." The two are not unrelated.

Enforcing our immigration laws is a federal responsibility, which Washington has failed to meet. It's too bad that the Arizona law comes just as the Obama administration had started doing what must be done — and a plan for effective immigration reform has some Senate support.

After eight years of passivity under the Bush administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is actively going after companies found to be employing illegal workers. That and a weak economy are credited with having slowed the surge of illegal immigrants into this country. (Note that ICE is managed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor.)

But as Brewer said, patience is gone. Border states like Arizona have long served as highways and convenient havens for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, locals fear with good reason that the drug war in Mexico is unleashing a new wave of entrants and violence. The recent murder of rancher Robert Krentz, presumably by an illegal immigrant, pushed many Arizonans over the edge.

The result is a policy that is disturbingly unfair to Latino populations. The law makes it a crime to move around without immigration documents and lets police demand such papers from anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally.

You know who that means: people from Mexico or who look like they could be from Mexico. And although the governor has promised to train officers against racial profiling, how could there not be? What would make an Arizona law enforcer suspect that someone is here illegally other than that person's ethnic appearance?

Stopping brown people in the street is not the way to address the problem. The great majority of illegal immigrants come for work. Though they shouldn't be here, these are mostly good people supporting their families. These poor folk deserve to be treated humanely.

Arizona doesn't need a new law to capture and deport the criminal element. As in many other states, police already check the immigration status of anyone charged with a crime. Those here illegally are referred to ICE.

Harassing countless innocents alongside illegal immigrants is a callous and futile way to stop massive flows of undocumented workers. The more successful approach is to remove the job magnet by fining and possibly jailing their employers.

It is already against the law to hire illegal aliens, but the giant loophole is the lack of a counterfeit-proof form of identification. If the job-seeker presents a reasonably good-looking document, a company can't be held liable if that person is found to be working illegally.

An immigration-reform proposal put together by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., would end that dodge by creating a Social Security card that contains fingerprints, eye scans or other biometric markers unique to every individual. Employers would check the information against a national database for all new hires, be they immigrant or native-born.

No, Arizona is not going about this the right way. But its radical law may spur overdue action. Now is the best time for it, when a slow economy has deflated the cheap-labor argument that only illegal immigrants will wash dishes or mop floors.

Effective immigration controls are not impossible. Canada has a large immigration program and virtually no illegal workers. Until the federal government creates a rational system, states are going to pass laws out of anger and panic. It's time for Washington to do its duty.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

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