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What's really wrong with Arizona?

A good friend says he's not going to Arizona any time soon. He's Hispanic. On his mother's side, his roots are in Mexico. But five generations ago on his father's side, his ancestors -- two brothers -- moved from Spain to South Texas and made an American life.

He is a native-born American who grew up in the modest circumstances familiar to many South Texas Hispanics. His father worked in a gas station; his mother was....his mother. After high school, he began his higher education at the bottom of the academic pecking order, at a community college.

He studied hard and got a good education. He taught writing and literature in college for 40 years. He was the chair of an English department, and he knows more about "Beowulf," "King Arthur," and "Dante's Inferno" than you and I do, put together.

But he's not a fancy dresser. He prefers enchiladas from a humble taco joint to steak in a fine restaurant, and he's been known to leave a taqueria with a couple of foil-wrapped tortillas protruding from the back pocket of his blue jeans.

In short, he looks like the type of guy that a couple of tough cops would enjoy cornering on a sidewalk in certain parts of Tucson or Phoenix and demanding, "Hey, Vato, where are your papers?"

So, he's not going to Arizona anymore.

A great deal has been written recently about the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, both pro and con. But the issue calls for a human face. Arizona is home to nearly 7 million American citizens; about one out of every three is Hispanic. Many of them are subject to the same misgivings that keep my friend out of Arizona: nobody wants to be singled out on the basis of how he or she looks.

Of course a subsequent modification in the law stipulates that ethnic appearance can't be the sole reason for demanding papers. Still, enough Hispanics have been stopped for DWB (Driving While Brown) that many of them are feeling more than a little uneasy about a new law that teeters constantly on the point of tipping over into intimidating racial discrimination.

And what about the 450,000 or so Hispanics who are in Arizona "illegally?" All right, I'll take back the quotation marks. Yes, many of the people who pick our fruit and vegetables, clean our hotel rooms, and mow our lawns -- ordinarily for very low wages -- are actually in our country without permission.

But it's short-sighted to ignore the historical context: Certainly, it's way too late to rectify the injustices of the Mexican-American War of 1846 or our well-documented exploitation of Mexican natural resources throughout the 19th Century. But eventually Mexico's proximity to the U.S. began to pay off: Mexican labor was not only permitted, it was encouraged, to come north, and a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship developed that functioned well in practical ways for many years on both sides of the border. Now, suddenly, we're shocked that we have Mexicans among us.

I can't speak for Arizona, but South Texas has benefitted from its historically porous border with Mexico: cheap labor comes north and Texans go south for bargains in goods and services. Further, the cultural mix on both sides of the Rio Grande manifests itself in exotic cuisine, music, art and day-to-day living in ways that make this area an interesting place to reside.

Sure, Congress should probably do something about the 12 million "illegals" in this country. A few of them might be criminals. But the great majority of them wouldn't be here, at all, if they weren't resourceful, hardworking people. And brave, as well.

So, as we attempt to resolve this issue, two ideas should be kept in the forefront: this problem has an important historical context and it has a human face. Otherwise, the abyss of prejudicial xenophobia -- against both citizens and illegals -- yawns before us.

-- Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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