On April 28, while speaking in Iowa, President Obama denounced Republicans who "exploited” the immigration issue “for political purposes." President said Arizona’s new immigration law would "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." He painted an alarming picture: "local officials are allowed to ask somebody who they have a suspicion might be an illegal immigrant for their papers. But you can imagine, if you are an Hispanic-American in Arizona -- your great-grandparents may have been there before Arizona was even a state. But now, suddenly, if you don't have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you're going to be harassed."
Pretty scary rhetoric. And President Obama isn't alone in making these claims. Take some of the statements on the Sunday morning talk shows this past weekend:
When asked by David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press" if the Arizona law involved "racial profiling," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied: "I don't think there's any doubt about that because, clearly, as I understand the way the law is being explained, if you're a legal resident, you still have to carry papers." Similarly, on ABC's "This Week," Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned: "Unfortunately, I think it does and can invite racial profiling."
Not to be outdone, Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) alleged on New York City's WPIX: "That is outrageous for a governor and a state to support something that a local policeman will determine by sight whether a person is illegal. . . . a governor of one of our fifty states and the legislature has passed something that is racist in nature, that jeopardizes the lives Americans." He claimed that local police will arrest people simply based on the color of their skin: "they will enforce the federal illegal immigration laws by allowing local police men to take a look and determine whether they are illegal and arrest them. And I would think that you would agree with me that they are talking about people of color. Now I think that is outrageous."
So, do all these politicians have a point or is it just scaremongering? Unlike the couple thousand plus page laws passed in Washington that are filled with very complicated legalese, the Arizona law, along with the minor clarifications passed last week, is only about four pages long and is written in pretty straightforward English. Anyone reading the law will clearly see that the claims made by some Democrats are false.
As a matter of fact, Arizona legislators themselves didn't want the police to have the power to simply "ask somebody who they have a suspicion might be an illegal immigrant for their papers." So they set up not just one but two requirements. First, police must have "lawful contact," meaning officers must already have detained an individual they suspect violated some other law.
Even then, authorities must have "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal alien. This "reasonable suspicion" standard has regulated police behavior since the 1960s and is a rule that police nationwide already deal with every day. "Reasonable suspicion" requires that the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to convince a person of "reasonable prudence" that a crime has been committed.
Opponents of the law claimed "lawful contact" was much boarder than the legislature intended and would allow police who were simply questioning an individual to ask for an ID. On Friday, April 30, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill clarifying the point, replacing “lawful contact” with “lawful stop, detention or arrest.”
We can look at the actual language used. After Friday's bill signing, the new Arizona law reads: "A law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, or town or other political subdivision of this state may not consider race, color or national origin." Before Friday, the bill said that police could not just consider race, color or national origin. But this was also superfluous, as every police officer who arrests someone or stops them for a traffic offense requests identification.
Democrats are playing with fire by misleading the nation to stir up racial tensions. Secretaries Clinton and Napolitano, Rep. Rangel, and President Obama are all lawyers. They know what legal terms such as "reasonable suspicion" and “lawful stop, detention or arrest" mean. To quote Congressman Rangel, the distortions are "outrageous." The new law is so short, just four pages, and written in such plain English that they must hope that no one else bothers reading it. And the worst part of all this? The racial animosity Democrats are creating will last for years.
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John R. Lott, Jr. is a FoxNews.com contributor. An economist and former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission, he is also a leading expert on guns. He is the author of several books, including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge? (Regnery Publishing 2013)." Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.