Columns » Bob Lancaster




The way the new Arizona immigration law works, as I understand it, is this: If the authorities suspect you might be an illegal, they can demand your papers; and if you can't or won't produce them forthwith, you can be detained. No telling what will happen to you then.

This seems wrong to me, not because I know anything about the legal or constitutional issues involved, but because of the influence on me of at least a hundred old movies. In those movies, when armed authorities demand your papers, it's merely a preliminary to their hustling you off to a death camp or shooting you on the spot.

The movie goons who demand your papers really don't want to see them. Saying they do is just an excuse to haul you up so they can get the drop on you. Never once did a movie villain demand papers from a protagonist, examine them politely and return them cheerfully, then raise the gate, apologize for the delay, and say, with evident sincerity, “You have a wonderful day now.”

Rather the whole rigamarole is rude, crude, and patently un-American.

So I'm thinking the best way to defang this new law might be to democratize or Americanize it. Amend it to require everybody to carry papers and to present them for examination on demand. Any “authority” who wants to could demand your papers under my proposal. A constable could. A coroner. A hall monitor. Gomer, Floyd, and Otis after Barney swears
them in. Kim Hanke when he was still a quorum court member in good standing.

If he'd kept his nose clean, by the way, under the law I'm proposing here, Kim could've demanded your papers, examined them, and then let you off with a warning if you'd agree to buy some siding or new windows from him. He'd have to let you off anyway, of course, but you have to admit it'd be a good sales tool. The best-ever foot in the door.

Remember when members of the Little Rock City Council used to flash badges and pretend they had police powers? Well, under my proposal they could indulge those old fantasies again. Impress their friends. If someone at a council meeting was giving them a hard time, they could demand the troublemaker's papers and “run a make” on the rascal to their hearts' content. They could run makes on each other, on the mayor, on nosy reporters, or on prospective opponents.

In return, since nearly everybody is an authority in some sense of the word, you could reciprocate, demanding that they produce their papers for your examination. You probably have some authority in some organization — a church, or lodge, or vigilante group, or booster club — or you hold a position, as a scoutmaster, say, or a bouncer, or a contributor to public radio — that qualifies you an “authority figure,” one with every right to demand and examine the papers of people you suspect of something, or people you don't suspect but want to pretend that you do. People you just want to red-belly a little bit. Like Sen. McCarthy used to do, only less so.

I'm thinking our first task here is to decide just which “papers” we're talking about. Which papers exactly would we all be obliged to carry for the “authorities” to demand and examine?

The best of all possible papers of that sort would be Letters of Transit, which nobody knew about until their existence was revealed or at least alleged in the movie “Casablanca.” If you have Letters of Transit, nobody can touch you, not even the Gestapo or Homeland Security or the Israeli Mossad or Jack Bauer. You could wave them under Hitler's little mustache or Stalin's big one or under Dick Cheney's drooped eye and they could only fume and splutter while you went on your merry way.

But Letters of Transit would lose their magic if everybody had a set. There'd be no point in requiring people to carry papers and present them on demand if everybody — everybody — could thereupon claim Letters of Transit immunity and tell you to go Leahy yourself. So let's exclude Letters of Transit.

Basic citizenship papers, certainly we'd want some of those. But with redactions so the “authorities” couldn't steal our identity.

A birth certificate perhaps, though those things are easily duplicated by scoundrels who would sneak fruit pickers or future presidents into the country.

I'd want my papers to include my Living Will. And my card certifying me as a charter member of the Cactus Vick Straight Shooters' Club. Notes of encouragement from better people than I am. Yelps from crooks who said they weren't crooks and liars who admitted that just because they said it didn't make it so.

Disses from pricks. Snoots from the pompous. Pearls before swine. The job-performance evaluation that time by the efficiency expert who moonlighted as a shrink. My pickerel frog's certificate of merit for his third-place finish in the 1967 state jump-off.

Rejection slips from the likes of Larry Flynt and Dr. Raoul Withers.

Near misses. A paid-off mortgage.

My license to rassle professionally in the state of Arkansas. The relief map of the roads not taken.

A great many obituaries.

And of course my cum laude diploma from the UHK.

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