Could immigration furor create positive evolution?

People take part in a march to celebrate International Workers' Day and to protest Arizona's new controversial immigration law Saturday May 1, 2010 in San Francisco

Two decades ago, when Arizona voters rejected a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the NFL yanked the Super Bowl from suburban Phoenix. The boycott marked a major turning point in the journey to nationwide acceptance of the King holiday.

Today, Arizona, a state full of travelers from across the Americas, is being boycotted again over a new immigration law said to encourage racial profiling. Yet just as the King debate changed hearts from average people to a president, Arizona’s troubles are positioned to again play a critical role in the twisting evolution of American race relations.

“The whole country has taken notice,” said Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, who dislikes the new law but thinks something had to be done about illegal immigration. “I don’t think people realized how serious a problem it is.”

What good could possibly come of this bad situation? A lot, it turns out. Because suddenly the entire nation is having a huge Arizona conversation, from rallies on the streets to voices on the airwaves – and there are signs of compromise instead of confrontation.

The emotional outcry could, counterintuitively, improve the country’s immigration situation in the long run by addressing directly a problem Americans have faced for a long time: We have no effective system for dealing with people who risk everything and break the law to come here.

“It’s a deplorable situation. But it will have an energizing, mobilizing effect,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Arizona law, he said, has caused a conversation that otherwise would have remained largely undiscussed.

Polls show that most Arizonans and a slight majority of Americans are fine with the new law, which requires police to question people about their immigration status if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the country illegally. Arizona’s GOP-dominated legislature passed it with no Democratic support; objections over racial profiling got buried beneath fears of high-profile immigrant crimes and frustration over federal inaction.

Now, all sides of the political spectrum are weighing in. And some stances aren’t as predictable as you might think.

Most of the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants are Hispanic. With millions of unemployed Americans considering jobs they once would have ignored, some say these immigrants are taking money out of their pockets. They want the immigrants removed – but how should they be sorted out from the approximately 40 million Hispanics who are U.S. citizens?

“There’s no easy way,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity. “They live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, work in the same places, speak the same language or not speak the same language. They may be related.”

Although President Barack Obama has said there will be no immigration-reform bill before the election, there are new signs of compromise – signs that the conversation is taking root.

Democrats have proposed a reform framework that is tougher on enforcement and would create new Social Security cards linked to fingerprints. Some prominent Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed reservations about Arizona’s approach. Even Karl Rove, the GOP political strategist who engineered George W. Bush’s victories, has some doubts.

“I’m concerned about the whole idea of carrying papers and always having to be able to prove your citizenship,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “That brings up some shades of some other regimes that weren’t necessarily helpful to democracy.”

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