08 February 2011

Open Letter to My Fellow Kentuckians

The following is a letter I have sent to the Kentucky Legislature's Legislative In-Box.  You can submit your own letter here to be sorted and sent to the appropriate recipients.  If you wish to contact a specific legislator, you can view the directory here.

Last year, as Arizona proposed and then adopted its controversial immigration legislation I stood from a distance and tried to consider that perhaps the local situation there was unique; that maybe I wasn't in a position to fully and properly judge how misguided it was.  I still feel that they got it wrong, but I also concede that I don't live in Arizona.  I don't walk the streets of their cities and towns.

I do, however, walk those in my home state, the great commonwealth of Kentucky.  I was born here, raised here and--much to the chagrin of my frustrated younger self--can scarcely imagine myself living anywhere but here.  Mine was the last generation to have no neighbors and few classmates of Hispanic origin.  Mine was the first generation to begin being asked if I wanted to continue phone menus in Spanish.  My generation, then, is in a unique position.  Those of us who cling to "the way things used to be" have reason to resist the change around us; those of us who embrace change accept our Hispanic neighbors--regardless of whether they have a green card.  We're a microcosm of our society at large, where youth largely consider this a tempest in a teacup and their elders see the immigration issue in the same light as the locusts of the Old Testament.

Enter: Kentucky Senate Bill 6, proposed by Senator John Schickel (R-District 11) and Senator Brandon Smith (R-District 30), which proposes to modify existing laws pertaining to citizenship and how it is handled by law enforcement.  I have no problem with several of its clauses, such as "specif[ing] that officials or agencies may not be prohibited from sharing the immigration status of a person under specific instances."  That seems reasonable to me, as a matter of fostering better communication between law enforcement agencies.  What I--and others--take issue with is the clause that "allow[s] for determining the immigration status of a person on reasonable suspicion, the arrest of an unlawful alien upon probable cause."  What, exactly, constitutes "reasonable suspicion?"  Suspicion of what, for that matter?  Perhaps Senators Schickel and Smith meant this to be invoked in as harmless a fashion as our seat belt law once did (you could only be cited for it if you were also being cited or charged with another violation of the law).  But it strikes me as awfully vague, and a very slippery slope to a police state.

No one should be surprised that Kentucky was among the first to follow Arizona's lead.  A recent survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League concluded that Kentucky is one of the ten least tolerant states in the union.  I'm not telling any tales out of school when I say I've seen firsthand the ugliness of racism displayed by my fellow Kentuckians.  It is an unpleasantness that manages to thrive where education is poor and despite the best efforts of our teachers (several of whom I count as close personal friends), there can be little denying that Kentucky is not a leader in education.

I haven't walked the streets of Phoenix, but I have walked the ones in Louisville.  I've been to rural parts of the state, too.  At no point have I ever encountered any kind of threat on the scale of what we're told was responsible for the legislation in Arizona.  There are no rampant kidnappings or drive-by shootings attributed to Mexican drug cartels in Kentucky.  There are, however, a lot of fearful white people who have been inundated by talk radio and Glenn Beck insisting that "those people" are coming here, stealing our jobs, paying no taxes and receiving free health care and legal rights that the rest of us decent, hard-working "real" Americans can't get.  I could refute all those accusations, but it would be pointless.  Those who understand the realities of the situation already know better, and those who don't aren't going to be persuaded by a bleeding liberal heart like mine.

What I will ask you, though, is what kind of a state you want.  The immigrants are going to keep coming as long as there's an opportunity here; asking people for their ID isn't going to change that.  What will change, however, if you give into this fear and anxiety is that you and I will not be able to walk the street without fear of being checked by an officer of the law to ensure that our papers are in order.  You cannot disprove a negative; there's no way to prove that someone is, in fact, an illegal immigrant.  You can only prove a positive, which means verifying that someone is, in fact, a legal citizen.  Do we want to live in a Kentucky that asks its residents to prove that?  I for one do not.  There is no meaningful effect that can come from this kind of legislation, aside from the codification of racism.  It bothers me that the state I love ranked so poorly on issues of tolerance, and it should bother you, too.  This is a chance to help turn around our state.  God knows we've ranked poorly enough in all kinds of categories over the years; this, I say, is the time to begin our ascent from mediocrity.

I urge the Senate to either revise the proposed legislation to remove the ambiguity that amounts to the codification of racism, or to reject the bill altogether.  We're better than this, and with the eyes of the nation watching we should take this opportunity to send the message that we are a state of optimism, not fear; that we are a state of law that values justice as much as we value order.

Travis McClain

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