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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Earlier this month my wife and I spent a nice few days in Tucson. We waited 45 minutes to get a table at our favorite Mexican restaurant on the city's heavily Latino south side – and it was worth it.

One night for dinner we enjoyed a downtown café where the chef, a local food celebrity, interprets various flavors of mole and other regional dishes from Mexico.

At our Radisson suites hotel, many of the nicer cars in the parking lot bore license plates from Sonora. The families around the swimming pool and the breakfast buffet blended English and Spanish seamlessly.

All of this gave some context to my wife's question the other morning about Arizona's new immigration law.

How could this possibly work, she wondered. Half of Tucson is or looks Mexican.

The answer is that it's going to work badly. The law isn't designed to actually do much to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants.

And complaints about how it could disrupt life in the border state are well founded.

It's possible I guess that the crazy sheriff in Phoenix and anti-immigration activists will never abuse the law to make trouble for American citizens whose Mexican features or names raise suspicion – and tourists like the ones from Sonora at my hotel.

But history tells us a law like this is unlikely to go that smoothly.

It's tempting to call it Arizona's problem and move on. But the effects are already being felt here.

And as the open rift in society over illegal immigration grows wider and uglier, Southern California will sure enough become the main battleground.

Not much sparks more open racial anger than debates over immigration, as you could hear daily on talk radio even before this week.

Otherwise thoughtful critics of U.S. immigration policy and legal precedent are embracing the symbolism of Arizona's move to enforce federal law, complaining that something had to be done.

The police chief of Tucson is not one of them. He wants nothing to do with involving his officers in this ideological fight.

Neither does LAPD chief Charlie Beck. With thousands of immigrants and their supporters expected to rally Downtown tomorrow for May Day, he made sure everyone knows that the LAPD's policy is the same as it has been for decades.

No officer will initiate contact solely to ascertain legal status. No stopping people on the street to demand papers.

It just makes sense to Beck, as it has for every recent LAPD chief.

Three kinds of people come into contact with the police, in the most general terms.

Criminals and suspects is one group. There is some screening of inmates once they hit the county jail system, but it would be nice if there were more foolproof ways of weeding out the bad guys who, on top of everything else, are here illegally.

That's the smaller portion of who could be affected by a law like in Arizona.

Way more people come into contact with the police either as crime victims or as providers of information. As witnesses or bystanders, the cooperative eyes and ears in a community that are vital to police work.

That's probably true for illegal immigrants as well, and it's good policy. It makes the city safer, as well as more of a community.

Arizona's law is only possible because community and political leaders have failed to work through the issue to any consensus.

And now the fight over illegal immigration will likely dominate this year's election campaigns throughout California.

Every candidate will have to address their position, some needing to dance around the issue more than others.

One thing they can't do is blame anyone else, even the politicians of Arizona. This is another self-inflicted problem, yet another price to be paid by Democrats and Republicans for failing to lead.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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