The growing far-right populist movements across the United States, from the ‘birthers’ to the ‘Tea Partiers’, may be disparate in nature but they all have one thing in common – they have all used ‘Europe’ as a bogeyman. According to their script Barack Obama is trying to move America toward the “socialist nightmare” that is Europe. How odd then that the new immigration law this movement has pushed through in Arizona moves that state closer to Europe than anything Barack Obama has passed or likely will pass.
The Arizona immigration law signed by the state’s Republican governor this week would require police officers to stop anyone who looks like an illegal immigrant and demand that they produce paperwork showing they have the right to be in the United States. The law’s passage has resulted in a furor in America, where critics say it mandates police to conduct racial profiling and is likely to be used by local officials to harass minorities. ‘Boycott Arizona’ movements are spreading like wildfire, and if there is speculation they could be as successful as the 1991 boycott when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day. That boycott cost the state an estimated $400 million. On that issue, Arizona eventually caved.
The new law is a clearly populist move, supported by 70% of people in the state. Arizona senator John McCain, slogging through a difficult reelection battle against a far-right populist opponent, has endorsed the bill. Sarah Palin, naturally, loves it
But what seems odd to me is that this same tea party crowd that abhors government intrusion into people’s lives is so ready to support a law that, in effect, requires all people in Arizona to carry government-issued identification at all times. The law itself only requires non-citizens to carry proof of their right to be in the US. But if a police officer stops a citizen on the street, and that person has no ID, how is he supposed to prove that he is a citizen? He can’t, unless he has ID. So, congratulations tea partiers, you’ve just instituted a mandatory ID card system in Arizona. Big Brother would be so proud.
This has been the lead news story in the US for the past several days, and Europeans may be wondering what the big deal is. In America (and really in the Anglo-Saxon world in general) there is a very different attitude toward national identification than in Europe. There is no national ID card in the US. In fact, many have argued that to require people to get such an ID would be unconstitutional. Several states are even challenging a 2005 federal initiative that would just harmonise the way state driving licenses are designed. Because there is no national ID most Americans use their driving license as identification. But according to studies millions of Americans don't carry any ID with them when they are not driving.
Across the Atlantic in Europe, the situation is quite different. The vast majority of European countries issue national IDs which their citizens are required to carry with them at all times. Foreigners have to carry their passport or a ‘foreigner ID card’. The police have the right to stop anyone in the street and demand that they show their ID. If you can’t, hefty fines can be imposed, and the police will go with you to your house or hotel to get the ID.
The big exception to this is the UK and Ireland, which do not require people to carry ID. The aversion to them appears to be some kind of Anglo-Saxon hangup really, deepy rooted in English common law. Canada also has no national ID scheme. ID schemes have been proposed in Australia and New Zealand but have been rejected.
The issue is quite a topical one in the UK actually, because the Labour government has been trying for years to introduce a biometric national ID scheme. That idea has been incredibly unpopular with the public and keeps being brought up by Gordon Brown’s opponents in the current election campaign. In the end Labour was unsuccessful in convincing the public to accept a biometric national ID, but they are slowly (and rather surupticiously) introducing non-biometric national IDs region-by-region.
However in continental Europe these electronic ID cards, with a chip containing all your information, have been in use for some time. They are currently being rolled out in Belgium as a matter of fact, so I will soon have the pleasure of owning one of these wonder-cards. With the chip, authorities can insert the card into a reader to get all your vital information. This has come in particularly handy for countries that tie speeding fines to people’s salary. When they pull you over, they insert your ID card into a slot to find out how much you earn, and your bank account is automatically deducted with the corresponding percentage.
Now whether any of this bothers you depends on your trust and faith in the state I suppose. Europeans tend to place a lot of trust in the state while Americans, notoriously, do not. And I’m sure everything I’ve described above sounds horrifying to the tea party crowd. But this is precisely the direction Arizona is now going in. It isn’t possible to only require IDs for foreigners, because in order to prove you’re not a foreigner you would have to show ID. Ergo, all people in Arizona must now carry an ID with them.
There is one important distinction between the Arizona law and the European ID requirements though. In Europe all people are legally required to carry ID, not just foreigners. So the laws don’t specifically target foreigners or minorities. Now, as many minorities in continental Europe will tell you (and as is patently observable on the street), in practice it is usually only minorities who are ever randomly stopped on the street and asked for ID.
Giving police officers the power to stop anyone without cause is probably an open invitation to racial profiling, and that kind of thing has unfortunately been going on in Europe for years. But the spirit of the identification laws in Europe are not meant to harass or intimidate any particular group of people, it is an ID requirement for everyone. The same cannot be said, I’m afraid, for this new Arizona law. It specifically mandates police officers to stop anyone they think is foreign and demand papers. And as an American living in a foreign country, I can just imagine how welcome it would make me feel if every time I opened my mouth and revealed my accent, someone stopped me and demanded I prove my right to be here. Even though I'm here legally and contribute to the economy, I probably wouldn't stick around too long in a place with that kind of attitude toward foreigners.