We're mad and afraid, not racist

On immigration, the American people probably don't really think what they think they think.

Let's take one person, male, white, green-eyed, with light brown hair. Let's put him in Arizona to visit his aunt, driving a rented car through Tucson.

Let's have someone run a stoplight and collide with him, causing vehicular damage but no apparent injury. Let's have the Arizona policeman investigating the accident ask the man for his driver's license, which gets produced.

But then let's have the Arizona policeman suspect that the guy looks like he might be European, kind of German.

Let's have the Arizona policeman ask the man for his immigration documents. The guy says he doesn't have any actual immigration documents, and never has had any, because he was born in Arkansas and still lives there. He has a passport, stamped a couple of times, but he doesn't carry it within the United States.

So the policeman says that, under state law, he is obligated, based on that suspicion and the man's inability to produce documents, to detain the man while authorities check with federal officials about the man's citizenship.

Do you like the sound of that? Of course not.

But that's the Arizona law a majority of Americans favor, according to polling.

Here's the truth: European-looking people aren't going to be bothered by this law. Only Hispanic-looking people will be.

That's racist. We're more fair-minded than to accept that.

Here's why the Arizona law polls well: Americans are sick and tired -- more to the point, they're scared to death -- of a federal government that can't seem to do anything right.

It can't balance a budget. It can't stop oil from spewing right up on our sandy white beaches. It can't win a war outright. It can't find Osama bin Laden.

And it cannot provide for a system of orderly and legal entry of foreign persons into the country, primarily along the Mexican border.

So when the Obama administration sues to overturn this Arizona law as an infringement on the supremacy of the federal government, a basic constitutional premise, most American people recoil. It's not so much because they embrace the Arizona law, but because it infuriates them that the federal government would assert its responsibility over a beleaguered state when it does not effectively meet that responsibility to attend to the legitimate concerns of that beleaguered state.

We will never seal our southern border. But we can make it harder to cross. We can never round up all the undocumented people who cross it. But we can make it harder for employers to hire them.

And we can establish a tamper-resistant identification system for non-citizens.

Until we show some federal gumption in these regards, some competence and effectiveness, the American people will react in a way that makes them seem meaner than they are.

Democrats want tougher border enforcement as part of comprehensive reform that provides a practical and reasonable path to citizenship for the millions here without documents.

Republicans, seeing yet another winning anger-based issue for November, claim to want tougher border enforcement, but not a path to citizenship, at least until the tougher border enforcement is demonstrated.

I don't know why Democrats don't call the Republicans' bluff.

They should push for tougher enforcement only. Democrats could say rightly that we have amnesty already, thanks to Republicans who don't want to add order and reason to it, except, that is, by the occasional unconstitutional and racist state law.

Actually, I do know why. Democrats see their own political advantages in mobilizing the Hispanic vote by holding out for a path to citizenship before toughening the border.

Did I mention that another thing the federal government can't seem to do anymore is break through partisan self-interest actually to solve a problem?

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is jbrummett@arkansasnews.com.