“Let me see your papers.”

Published: April 26, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 
– Matthew 7:12, (King James) The Bible

“I won’t tolerate racial profiling… We must enforce the law evenly, and without regard to skin color, accent, or social status. We must prove the alarmists and the cynics wrong.” 
– Jan Brewer, Arizona state governor

Since signing Senate Bill 1070 into law last Friday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy. According to the Associated Press, “the legislation… makes it a crime, under state law, to be in the country illegally.”

The biggest sticking point is in the language: “For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official… where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien…”

What constitutes “reasonable suspicion”?

“It’s going to change our lives,” said Emilio Almodovar, a 13-year-old American citizen from Phoenix. “We can’t walk to school any more. We can’t be in the streets anymore without the pigs thinking we’re illegal immigrants.”

Since news of the law made the headlines last Friday, I’ve been turning this over in my mind from the ethical perspective. Is the law fair? Don’t we want to treat others with the same respect and compassion that we wish for ourselves?  On the other hand, is it fair for legal citizens to continue to pay for state and local services for illegal immigrants, particularly during tough economic times?  And what do we say to those immigrants who have gone through the immigration process to legally live and work here?

Who’s right?

I don’t believe that Arizona intended to practice deliberate discrimination. The reality of limited resources and tough economic times surely must be taken into account especially when the federal government has been so lax in dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, the only way I read the law is one of discrimination.

So, how do we decide what’s right?

I’m reminded of the third step in the Josephson ethical decision-making model: “It is ethically proper to violate an ethical principle only when it is clearly necessary to advance another true ethical principle, which, according to the decision maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.”

The ethical principles involved would seem to be respect, responsibility, compassion and fairness.

In looking at the stakeholders involved – millions of Arizona citizens vs. several hundred thousand illegal immigrants – it seems reasonable that a fundamental sense of fairness should be applied to all.

Unfortunately, the federal government has not put forth the necessary action to apply that fairness with respect to the citizens of Arizona. In spite of how unclear the words “reasonable suspicion” sound, it comes down to the fair application of the law. In this respect, I would hope that the training law enforcement officers would receive regarding implementation would spell out a respectful and responsible protocol in which the law would be carried out.

Fairness would therefore, have to go to the citizens of Arizona over respect and compassion toward illegal immigrants.

Then I came across something else. It comes in a conversation between the philosopher Socrates and Crito from Plato’s Dialogues.

Socrates has been condemned to death by a jury of Athenian citizens for “corrupting the youth.” His wealthy friend Crito offers a plan to fight the unjust decision whereby he will bribe Socrates’ prison guards allowing the philosopher to escape and live to philosophize another day.

Socrates, however, argues against the idea. “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”

This is the heart of The Golden Rule. It also requires an extraordinary level of commitment. It is also what my conscience tells me is the right thing in the long run. Other means need to be explored and the Congress needs to stop talking about the issue and come up with a real, practical, non-ideological solution to the problem.

So how does all this play out? The law is due to take effect in July or August. What happens next?

That’s the question President Kennedy asks advisor Dean Acheson after discovering that the Soviet Union has placed offensive missiles in Cuba. After listening to Acheson’s showdown scenario; one that includes the very real possibility of nuclear war, Kennedy asks, “What’s the next step?”

“Hopefully,” Acheson replies “cooler heads will prevail before we reach the next step.”

Before the rhetoric gets out of hand; before the first alleged illegal is stopped by a law enforcement officer; before the level of anger escalates to possible violence… hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.


  1. When fascist states and other foreign govts are depicted requiring proof people belong is common, which is very uncommon in our land of immigrants, land of the free and home of the brave. But now Trump and racist supporters are driving our Country toward a nation where proof of citizenship is more important than love of freedom! Sad!

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