The Battle over Arizona

Kelefa Sanneh's specious attack on Arizona's immigration law reveals his extremism—and his willingness to distort reality.

The New Yorker is a Far-Left magazine that often seeks to shroud its ideology through cleverly crafted articles notable for their modulated prose style and pretense of evenhanded thoroughness. But sometimes articles appear in which the formula slips, and the true intent of the author is exposed. Jane Mayer’s oft-quoted piece on the conservative industrialists David and Charles Koch comes to mind. But seldom has the magazine presented an article in which the author’s ideological intent has been more nakedly plain than in Kelefa Sanneh’s exploration of the illegal-immigration issue in Arizona (“Raging Arizona: How a border state became a battleground,” May 28).

He employs the usual New Yorker tactic of portraying the liberal characters as heroes while the conservatives come off as bumbling or worse. But he lacks the magazine’s usual finesse, which renders the tactic transparent. We also see the adroit arrangement of facts, designed to get the reader on his side before he carefully parcels out the opposing elements of the story. But again, it’s ham-handedly obvious. There’s the usual efforts to elide inconvenient facts and skirt questions that, to any skeptic, beg for answers.

But then, before he can complete his writing task, Sanneh simply loses patience with the whole charade, tosses aside the pretense and declares his own position in all of its elemental extremism.

Arizona has indeed become a battleground, as the magazine’s title suggests. In the immigration controversy that grips the nation, this is ground zero, where the problem is most acute and citizens on both sides are most impassioned. The issue cries out for dispassionate exposition that captures the tragic nature of the predicament, the inevitable emotions generated on all sides, the profound challenge it poses to the country’s governmental system. Such a dispassionate exposition would not begin with an assumption that Arizonans concerned or angry about the influx of illegals are “crazies.”

But that’s how Sanneh’s narrative hero, Richard Carmona, views them, according to Sanneh, notwithstanding that these “crazies” represent a majority of the state’s citizens. Carmona, a medical doctor and former U.S. surgeon general, is the Democrat seeking the Senate seat of retiring Republican Senator Jon Kyl, and Sanneh suggests—utterly implausibly—that he “may represent the Party’s best chance to pick up a Senate seat in November” (three states currently are more likely to do so). More plausibly, he is the Democrat whose senatorial campaign most frontally attacks the voters he is seeking to represent in Congress.

When Carmona travels around the country and tells people where he is from, says Sanneh, there is an inevitable “Ooohh” from the audience, suggesting it considers such a place eerie. Carmona explains further: “And then they start asking me questions about border fences, and electrical fences, and deporting people.” Sanneh adds that when Carmona says he’s fighting against his state’s “painfully malicious” immigration policies, “he doesn’t have to explain what he’s talking about.”

This is clever journalism—and entirely false. It implies that Arizona is a pariah state because it enacted a law called S.B. 1070, which empowered law enforcement to check people’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” and various violations of federal law. It’s a controversial law, and the Supreme Court will shortly determine its constitutionality. But, if Arizona is a pariah state as reflected in Carmona’s stump experiences, how is it that a Rasmussen poll showed that 60 percent of Americans favor the S.B. 1070 approach, while only 31 percent oppose it? And why did a New York Times/CBS poll find that 51 percent of national respondents considered the law “about right,” while 36 percent felt it went “too far”—and 9 percent felt it didn’t go far enough (hence, the same 60 percent)? And why did an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll find that 71 percent of Americans wanted their own states to adopt similar legislation?

Sanneh does own up to the fact that it isn’t “quite accurate to say that S.B. 1070 is unpopular in Arizona.” But instead of providing poll numbers that would quantify this reality, he glides to a passage saying many Republican politicians have refrained from embracing it with enthusiasm. What he doesn’t say is that this is not uncommon in politicians seeking to maneuver around highly emotional issues. Indeed, later, in discussing some GOP pols’ efforts to get right with Arizona voters, he quotes Carmona saying this is merely political cynicism. Referring to Jeff Flake, Carmona’s likely Republican opponent, Sanneh quotes Carmona as saying, “He has to appease the extreme right” in his primary. Again, the implication is that mainstream Arizona sentiment is actually extremist. The article is laced with such deft passages.

But Sanneh gives his game away with his rendition of historical events surrounding the U.S. acquisition of the territory that now encompasses Arizona—in the treaty that followed the Mexican War and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase. He says that “the border was pushed south, turning disputed Mexican territories into disputed American ones.”