Arizona and the Politics of Immigration

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[The Future of Arizona in the Liberal Imagination]

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that makes it a state crime to enter the United States illegally, requires immigrants to carry their registration papers at all times and requires police to question those who they reasonably suspect are in the country illegally. It also criminalizes individuals who hire undocumented workers or willingly transport them.

Is the passage of Arizona’s recent immigration reform a response by a beleaguered state that has been under siege by the undocumented for decades as many conservatives contend? Or, is it a nativist reaction by a Republican party eager to mobilize elements of its base–and at the same time turn the Republicans into a minority party– as many liberals argue?

John Judis’ recent post at TNR (h/t Roland) is representative of the liberal perspective. Judis opines:

The bill might not have become law if Democrat Janet Napolitano had still been governor. Napolitano vetoed similar measures. And Arizona’s Latino community hoped that Brewer, who replaced Napolitano, would veto it. When she took office, Brewer was reputed to be a hard-line conservative, but faced with the reality of Arizona’s huge budget shortfall, she had begun moving to the center on a few issues. This year, she had the temerity to propose a temporary 1 percent sales-tax increase to prevent even greater cutbacks in state services.

Brewer’s tax proposal enraged Arizona’s conservative Republicans, as well as the state’s Tea Party and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and challengers have already made it the focus of their campaign to defeat Brewer in this August’s Republican primary. Brewer evidently felt she couldn’t afford to do something else that would alienate Republican conservatives—and so she signed the immigration bill…

While Republicans may pick up a few more percent of the angry white vote in November 2010, they can kiss the Hispanic vote goodbye—and not just in Arizona. That may not have meant much in 1935, but in the years to come, it could seal the Republicans’ fate as a minority party. That’s at least one price they’ll pay for being mean and crazy.

According to Judis, the bill was a cynical ploy by Arizona Republicans seeking to capitalize on the discontent of “angry white vote[rs]”. However, this will ultimately backfire as Latinos react to what they perceive as the anti-Latino worldview of the Republican Party.

Setting aside the notion of cynicism, I agree with Judis that Arizona’s Republican legislators are giving the Tea Partiers, nativists, populist and isolationist Paulistas, and other individuals critical of American immigration policy a political bone. I suspect he would agree that this is a general tendency exhibited by our elected leaders. Given their interest in getting elected to office and maintaining their position, politicians from both parties routinely appeal to their respective bases of support. If they fail to do so, they won’t get the votes necessary to win. In other words, this is not unique to Republicans but is reflective of American politics and other democratic political systems.

[Students Protest California’s Proposition 187]

I also think there is recent historical evidence that these sorts of measures do lead to negative consequences for the Republicans. When California governor Pete Wilson supported a variety of measures against the undocumented, in particular California’s Proposition 187 (which denied them access to public services), Mexican-Americans mobilized to defeat the measure and throw Wilson out of office.

Some Republicans, given the demographics of the Latino community and other factors, agree this is a losing proposition. For example, conservative radio talk-show host Michael Medved supports tighter boarder controls but worries about the political impacts of the Arizona law on Republicans who need the support of Latinos to win in the southwest and other states like Florida, New Jersey and Illinois that have large (and growing) Latino populations.

Something absent from much of the discussion–at least those on the liberal end of the political spectrum–is the fact that the Arizona bill is not significantly different from current federal law. Another element of the legislation is law enforcement may not use race or ethnicity as the sole reason to stop anyone and may only use race and ethnicity as a factor as currently allowed by federal law. Commentary’s Peter Wehner notes:

My own sense of the law, which is carefully written, is that it’s not nearly as draconian as its critics insist — and much of what defenders of the law have been saying about its actual meaning and effect is in fact correct. The law does not give police the right to stop anyone they want to ask for papers solely based on race or ethnicity. The charges that this law is driven by racism and that Arizona has become a “police state” are extreme and reckless. The vast majority of the people of Arizona are responding to a real and present danger — and most of the American public agrees with them (51 percent v. 39 percent, according to Gallup).

The notion of “reasonable suspicion” was codified by a 1968 Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. And police agencies are acutely aware that they run a regular risk of being labeled as engaging in racial profiling. Nevertheless, Wehner opposes the law, “on the grounds that it potentially changes for the worse the relationship between the community and the local and state police and risks treating some people as guilty until proven innocent. The Arizona law, in my estimation, nudges things a bit in that direction, which concerns me.”

Fair enough. But this law would not have passed without a strong sense of public outrage regarding lackluster enforcement of existing immigration laws by the federal authorities. It is the responsibility of the federal government to enforce federal law, and it has been woefully unwilling or unable to do much in this regard, whether under President George W. Bush or President Obama. This actually goes back earlier than either Obama or Bush and even prior to Reagan, who is often viewed by nativists as the architect of the amnesty program (the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) that set us on the trajectory we are traveling today.

[LAPD Chief Daryl Gates]

Instead of Reagan, we can blame Los Angeles. Specifically, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates who established the LAPD’s Special Order 40 in 1979 which states, “Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person. Officers shall not arrest nor book persons for violation of title 8, section 1325 of the United States Immigration code (Illegal Entry).”

Special Order 40 Los Angeles was meant to encourage the undocumented to be willing to speak to assist law enforcement and testify in court. It was also intended to prevent the undocumented from being the targets of criminals who felt they were easy targets. But one unintended consequence was the development of so-called “sanctuary cities”. It is also debatable whether the intended consequences were ever realized. Thirty years after implementation, undocumented Latino immigrants in Los Angeles are still reluctant to speak to police officers and the neighborhoods where they are most concentrated continue to be plagued by gangs and high crime rates.

For most Americans, public safety is the paramount issue. One of the things that pushed moderate Arizonans towards supporting this law was the recent murder of rancher Robert Krentz by a suspected Mexican drug runner. Add to that the recent increase in drug-related murders in Mexican states that border the U.S. and the fact that the violence is also impacting U.S. towns near the border it should be no surprise that so many Americans are calling for increased border security and stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

[Victims of Mexico’s Drug War]

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