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On Yer Bike!
September 2010


This summer, in New York's Riverside Park, I was issued a $50 summons for cycling on a footpath. I objected: "But I've been cycling down this hill for 30 years. Since when has the rule changed?" The parks policeman claimed: "It's been on the books forever." He failed to ameliorate my indignation. The rule had also been unenforced forever. I shelled out the 50 bucks, but in a spirit of contempt. Next time I hit that same hill out of view of some jobsworth in uniform, I'll gleefully bike it.

Petty cycling story begets larger political truth: laws long unenforced effectively don't exist. Moreover, abruptly applying regulations dormant for decades gives rise to outrage. Once established custom has run roughshod over statute long enough, violations convert to rights. 

So let's use a wider-angle lens. Domestically and internationally, the Hispanic response to Arizona's 2010 state immigration law, which studiously duplicates US federal immigration law, was predictable: outrage. That's because the feds don't enforce it. About a million illegal immigrants enter the US every year, and estimates of such residents range from 12 to 20 million, three-quarters of them Hispanic. As this southerly inflow continues and volumes of illegal aliens reside undisturbed, US immigration statutes might as well have been printed in disappearing ink. 

As I write this, Arizona's "SB-1070" has been temporarily defanged in court, an early indication that by the time this column sees print the law may have been struck down as a usurpation of federal powers. Yet what's been so famously controversial? The expectation that in the prosecution of other laws local and state police investigate a suspect's immigration status if they have reasonable suspicion that he or she is "undocumented". Although Mexico's president led the charge in denouncing the Arizona law as offensive, his country's own laws invest every level of law enforcement with exactly this same authority. Indeed, Mexican immigration laws are far more draconian than those Arizona would install; an illegal immigrant in Mexico who takes a job faces up to six years in prison and deportation. Also duplicating SB-1070, Mexican law requires all foreign-born residents to carry papers demonstrating their legal status; in Mexico, failure to produce such papers on demand results in fines, jail, deportation, or a combination of all three, and returning deportees can be jailed for ten years. Surprisingly, Mexico deports more illegal immigrants annually than the US.

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