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Opinion: Arizona alienates world as "hate state"

New immigration law allows police to detain anyone on mere suspicion of having sneaked across the Mexican border.

People hold signs as they protest against Senate Bill 1070 outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, April 25, 2010. Arizona's tough new immigration law has renewed calls for Washington to reform federal immigration laws, and protesters decried the state's action as a violation of U.S. civil rights at a rally on Sunday in the state's capital. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

TUCSON, Arizona — It is eerie and ugly, coming home to a state of the union that now incites cops to roust fourth-generation Americans on the simple evidence of a suntan. That smacks of what evil empires do.

Arizona is not yet Azerbaijan but neither is it, any longer, the big-hearted Mexican-accented place I loved to say I was from. “Oh right,” a friend remarked the other day in New York, “the hate state.”

A new guilty-until-proven-innocent law allows police to detain anyone on the mere suspicion of having sneaked across the Mexican border.

The irony rankles. Many Mexican-Americans who now must fear any law officer in a bad mood have family roots far deeper than Arizona’s 1912 statehood. Most people who want them gone are relative newcomers.

True enough, illegal immigration from Mexico is a problem, and so is drug trafficking. But building barriers, physical or psychic, only brings on worse crises and undermines what America represents.

For an Arizonan-at-heart like me, this is personal. My father ended up here from a different direction, welcomed at Ellis Island by that towering statue that is supposed to define us.

Arizona’s new law led the news on Al Jazeera. It is the butt of bitter jokes across Europe. People are losing their last shreds of faith in the nation that once symbolized liberty and tolerance.

Who can blame them? Ronald Reagan earned his place in history by thundering: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Now his spiritual heirs want to put it back up in Arizona.

Gov. Jan Brewer assures that this is not about racial profiling. Everyone, dark or light, needs identity papers to produce for no particular reason. Remember those old Nazi films? “Vos papiers!”

Nations must patrol their borders and enforce their laws. But when they target broad ethnic groups, or generalized categories, they venture dangerously close to what we have fought wars to thwart.

This closing of the Arizonan mind comes simultaneously with ecological peril: the squandering of scarce water and the relentless bulldozing of the dramatic Sonora desert landscape found nowhere else.

In Massachusetts, I visited Alan Weisman, whose best-selling “The World Without Us” looks hard at such things. Fed up with Arizona’s changing face, a while back, he sold his Tucson house and burrowed into the Berkshires.

When people are fearful, Weisman says, they tend towards easy — and invariably wrong — measures. They give authorities license to attack obvious surface symptoms while the underlying causes fester.

The recent murder of a rancher on the border sparked exactly this response: buy more guns, round up the usual suspects and slam the door. But that only swells the ranks of desperados with nothing to lose.