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My somewhat suprising gut reaction to Arizona’s asinine immigration law

May 5, 2010

So, a number of people have asked me for my take on Arizona’s recent immigration bill. I think that they expected me to condemn it outright as racist and hateful. And I have to admit that I expected the same of myself – it’s obviously both things, and deeply offensive to the notions of tolerance, due process, anti-authoritarianism, and a bunch of other principles that I hold dear that I can’t quite bring to the tips of my fingers at the moment.

But I’ve had a hard time seeing the matter in such black and white terms. Don’t get me wrong – the law itself is terribly misguided. It’s one of those horrible pieces of legislation borne of baby-boomers’ incessant need to frame their personal prejudices as exceptions to the principle – said principle often expressed by means of braying that Obama is a Fascist Communist, or other such absurd nonsense –that government is anathema to freedom. Hypocrisy is always distasteful, and never more so than when it’s employed by the powerful to stomp on the powerless.

And yet, I can’t bring myself in all good conscience to write the whole thing off entirely as just another cynical right-wing escapade.

I think that the source of my unease is that those opposed to Arizona’s new law seem to want to ignore the inconvenient fact that the people it targets are, in fact, here illegally. Now, before my friends and loved-ones jump all over my case, please don’t take that statement to be a credulous endorsement of the claim that the sentiments behind the law are primarily – or even substantially – rooted in anything other than “we don’t like those damned furriners darkening up our sidewalks and  jabbering away in a language that we can’t understand” backwardness. There’s clearly a great deal of racism and xenophobia, swirling around in many Arizonans pointy little heads. But even stripping all of that away, there remains the fundamental problem that the failure to deal with the illegal immigration amounts to sanctioning a rash of social ills — the highly-organized criminal enterprise of human trafficking, the exploitation of those who are unable to rely on the protection of US laws, the economic distortion created by a permanent underclass of cheap labor, and the process of “immigration by insemination” that happens when children are born on US soil to illegal parents.

But even given all of the above, to me the most insidious thing is that the law is so openly flouted by everybody engaged in the ecosystem of contraband labor. I can’t think of an issue that more plays more readily into the narrative of the cynical and disaffected than being able to point to such a massive failure as a way to justify their solipsism and laziness.

As a progressive, I believe fervently in good government and well-crafted public policy. There are just too many aspects of a society as vast, complex and pluralistic as ours not to have good mechanisms sitting at the center trying to balance competing priorities. But when you have as massive and visible a failure of self-determination as the one that’s represented by our refusal to deal with this issue, how can we blame anyone for taking a hard right turn towards cynicism and wanting to chuck the whole enterprise?

Arizona’s law smacks of mean-spiritedness and the kind of jack-booted excess against which the Bill of Rights was intended to safeguard. It clearly has to go. But it should be dispatched as part of a grand compromise that takes steps towards making it irrelevant, not merely as a reaction to a dimwitted state legislature that took the opportunity to pander to their constituents’ extreme frustration with the Federal Government. As progressives, we should demand nothing less of our elected leaders than to deal with the actual problem.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. The Center Square permalink
    May 7, 2010 8:49 am

    I can’t say I disagree. Lawbreaking is lawbreaking, after all.

    That being said, let’s not forget that the political actors who gave rise to this shameful law are the very ones responsible for the climate preventing federal action on immigration in the past. Penalty and path to citizenship? “NO AMNESTY!!!,” they screech. A biometric system to enforce employment laws? “BIG BROTHER!!!,” they shriek.

    They have created a climate in which any politician crazy enough to tackle this problem either sanctions the utter folly of mass deportation, or faces the utter certainty of voter backlash. And that is because, ultimately, the primary impetus behind this whole thing IS xenophobia.

  2. Andrew permalink
    May 7, 2010 9:25 am

    Very well said, Thrasybulus.

    Since I first heard about the new Arizona law I’ve been expecting to see carefully thought out logical explanations from democrats and progressives about why the letter of the law is bad (not the motivation for the law, which I agree with you is very suspect, but the letter of the law). Much to my surprise, I haven’t yet seen it, and I also haven’t been able to deduce it.

    Nearly every opposition post I’ve read conflates anger towards *illegal* immigration with discrimination against *legal* immigration. Again, maybe that’s some of the motive behind the Arizona law, but I don’t see how the letter of the law would necessarily connect the two.

    I do understand concerns about racial profiling. But it’s not yet clear to me to what extent that would happen and how many legal citizens would actually be harmed by it. Why not at least wait and see before protesting? Certainly the idea of Nazi-style checking of papers is horrid, but why would it necessarily be like that? Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think our police are a bit more enlightened than Hitler’s. Illegal immigration is a serious problem, and serious problems often require seemingly drastic short-term steps to solve, but that doesn’t mean Armageddon.

    Can anyone provide a clear, logical, non fear-based argument as to why the LETTER of the Arizona law is so terrible? I’d love to hear one. Really!

    On a related note, why is the idea of having a national ID card so concerning to many? Who should be reasonably concerned other than those who can’t legally get one?

    I feel like I must be losing Liberal IQ points by not being able to answer these questions on my own. 🙂

  3. Liz S-F permalink
    May 7, 2010 10:03 am

    At the risk of losing my bleeding-heart cred, I also have to admit that I can’t condemn the Arizona law in its totality. As someone who is familiar with budgets at the local level, I know that cities and towns are truly struggling to provide services at the local level. School populations grow, yet the money to hire more teachers does not. Cities and towns are mandated to provide specialized services to students, but these are mostly unfunded. It’s not hard to see how the citizens of a state feeling the pressure of diminishing resources and exploding need could take steps to control their population by targeting the group who is utilizing those resources “illegally.”

    The real problem, IMHO, lies in the rhetoric that taxes are evil and the act of raising taxes to provide much needed services to EVERYONE from immigrant babies to senior American citizens is political suicide. As a country we need to remember that taxes exist to support our communities and paying them is a duty not a punishment.

    The Arizona law illustrates that we are a country in crisis, not just a crisis of illegal immigration, but a crisis of community.

  4. May 12, 2010 2:00 pm

    And yet, I can’t bring myself in all good conscience to write the whole thing off entirely as just another cynical right-wing escapade.

    I am very happy to see well thought out opinions of Arizona. Much of my contact with the Left over this law has been the knee jerk reaction that the bill and its supporters are racist.

    The real problem, IMHO, lies in the rhetoric that taxes are evil

    Liz, I think the problem is that we are restricting the Liberty of people based on an arbitrary line in the literal sand. There is no reason that a border ought to restrict those Liberties.

    With that said, I understand why one Nation would build certain conditions for entry.

    1. A reasonable check to see if the person was a wanted criminal in the originating nation.
    2. A reasonable check to see that the person is not on a International terror watch list.
    3. A reasonable check to see if the person is or is not carrying an infectious disease.

    Beyond these, and certainly a few more, gaining entry into the United States to work should be not much harder than getting a cell phone or cable TV. A reasonable check and poof, you’re in.

    P.S. Taxes beyond the level of providing what the State “ought” provide is evil 😉

  5. May 12, 2010 6:23 pm

    Pino —

    Please don’t ignore the word “just” in that sentence. There’s clearly a great deal of fear-mongering and general asininity about the law, and I’d bet a great deal of money that there’s a great deal of racist animus at work as well. My comment was intended to convey my impression that, unlike so many of the straw-man policy proposals that we hear these days, there’s something that one can understand and sympathize with behind this one. That’s a pretty low standard for judgment, and when expectations are so low, they’re not hard to meet. Let’s put it this way — if that law were a grammar-school student, it would be wearing a helmet and riding on the short bus. We have compassion for those kids, but it would be cruel to burden them with the mantle of leadership.

    I also have to say that your vision for border-control is…well, let’s just say “charmingly uncomplicated”. Under the system you seem to favor economic, political, ecological and public health refugees would be free to flock to any place that seemed better than where they were. A stable, productive society is a complicated organism which takes many generations to build, and it’s easily disrupted by sudden demographic changes…just as water sloshing around in the belly of 747 would cause it to fall out of the sky, so would violent influxes of people make an advanced society impossible to maintain. Now you might argue some sort of “market forces” theory of homeostasis and equilibrium in response. But we’d fall a VERY long way before we hit that kind of a stable state — we’d basically have to become not only less appealing than the next best alternative, but so much less appealing that significant numbers of people would decide to take on the burden of dislocation (what economists call “switching cost”) to move somewhere else. So…not a country I’d want to live in. Not to mention that the costs of assimilating all of those people — even if just policing, infrastructure increases, etc. — would raise taxes. And…you don’t like taxes, right?

    You may wish for a simple, uncomplicated, Uncle Sam-free society, but you should be careful what you wish for. Take a vacation in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier territories, much of Africa, large swaths of China, Mexico, Paraguay, Rio de Janeiro, or any of a number of other places where the balance tips towards “liberty” (that is, people can do damned well what they please without having to answer to their fellow citizens). But make sure you’ve got good health insurance (oh, right — you don’t need that…your countrymen have been kind enough to make sure you don’t go without!). And that your affairs are in order. You know, life unprotected can get somewhat untidy….

    • May 12, 2010 9:24 pm

      There’s clearly a great deal of fear-mongering and general asininity about the law,

      You seem to contradict yourself in this reply. On one hand, you are in some way insinuating that the law is not adequate. Then below, you mention that we shouldn’t just let anyone in.

      So I ask you:

      1. How would you decide who gets in and who doesn’t?
      2. What would you do with those that didn’t abide by the rules and got in anyway?

      and I’d bet a great deal of money that there’s a great deal of racist animus at work as well.

      The law doesn’t mention race except to say that race can’t be used as a determinant. It’s the detractors of the law that claim people will profile Hispanics. Why would you think the law would cause people to target Hispanics? Are YOU, in fact, profiling?

      Under the system you seem to favor economic, political, ecological and public health refugees would be free to flock to any place that seemed better than where they were.

      Yes. Just a little harder than moving from one state to another.

      But we’d fall a VERY long way before we hit that kind of a stable state —

      I had friends, all combination of legal, illegal, white and Hispanic that worked at a processing plant. Immigration would sweep every 8-10 months. The illegal workers that would be deported would implore the line boss not to give away their job; they’d be back in a week. And ya know what, they were.

      I would suggest that we have the equivalent of open borders now. Virtually anyone who wants to enter America through our Southern border can and does. What we’re doing now is nonsensically calling some of them legal and other illegal.

      Under the system you seem to favor economic, political, ecological and public health refugees would be free to flock to any place that seemed better than where they were.

      Yes. I not only believe in Liberty for American’s but for all people. I don’t think something as arbitrary as a border should stop any but the most unreasonable from crossing.

      Not to mention that the costs of assimilating all of those people — even if just policing, infrastructure increases, etc. — would raise taxes.

      As per above, those taxes are already being levied and spent. We are already policing and paying to assimilate folks who cross as it is.

      “liberty” (that is, people can do damned well what they please without having to answer to their fellow citizens)

      You would help yourself a great deal if you understood Liberty.

      oh, right — you don’t need that…your countrymen have been kind enough to make sure you don’t go without!)

      I DO need it. I just don’t suppose that the State, under threat of sword and gun, should be free to take YOUR property so that I may have insurance.

      • Andrew permalink
        May 12, 2010 10:10 pm

        Pino, let’s not kid ourselves.

        > The law doesn’t mention race except to say that race can’t be used as a
        > determinant. It’s the detractors of the law that claim people will profile
        > Hispanics. Why would you think the law would cause people to target Hispanics?
        > Are YOU, in fact, profiling?

        When >95% of illegal immigrants in the states that border Mexico are Hispanic, then of course this law is targeting Hispanics (and, in fact, mainly Mexicans). The law doesn’t need to explicity say so for it to be so.

        We can reasonably argue whether or not the profiling of Hispanics is justified given the severity of the problems with illegal immigrants. But let’s not pretend that police acting under this new law will look at all races and ethnicities through the same lens.

      • May 12, 2010 10:53 pm

        When >95% of illegal immigrants in the states that border Mexico are Hispanic

        Okay then. Don’t be surprised when 95% of the people in violation of this law are Hispanic and mostly Mexican.

        Further, I don’t think that Hispanics aren’t already profiled. See Seattle. One of the most Liberal and pacifist states in the Nation.

  6. David Graves permalink
    May 16, 2010 11:52 am

    The main problem with the law is the ubiqutous hypocrisy that goes along with most U.S. knee-jerk policies. First of all, these illegal aliens wouldn’t even think about coming to the U.S. unless they knew that an opportunity for work awaited them. These jobs are of course offered by U.S. citizens knowingly breaking the immigration laws. The reason there is no outcry against these legal citizens is because everyone knows that the price of fruit and vegetables would skyrocket due to either a sudden drop in supply or having to pay an actual livable wage to people who up until now wanted nothing to do with these low paying jobs.

    The bigger and yet in some ways more subtle problem with the law is the history between the U.S. and their Spanish cousins to the south. Try to pick a country, any country, south of the border where the U.S. has not had a direct hand in trying to, and many times successfully, topple that government and put in their own straw-man leader. From Pinochet to Noriega, from Guatemala to Brazil, Central and South America countries have for years lost their sovereignty through U.S. backed assassinations and coups if said country dared speak of nationalization or tried doing business with the Russians. Sugar, bananas, oil, drugs, whatever the commodity, the U.S. wanted in and stopped at nothing to get their way.

    So when people from these devastated countries decide to try to find a better life for themselves, not at all unlike many of our forefathers did, (not mine of course, they had no say in their trip to the New World and life was definitely not better for them) it is truly ironic that the country that is the cause of much of the misery south of the border, is seen as a haven for those trying to escape their plight. The irony is complete when the U.S. then just turns them away because of all the trouble they are causing.

    The war on drugs is a great example. Americans spend billions of dollars every year on drugs. They are hooked. However you would never know this watching the evening news. It’s all the Mexican, Columbian and now Afghani’s faults. Where is the sense of responsibility? Where is the voice of reason? Not one politician dares say “Hey Americans, if you use drugs you are funding crime syndicates and terrorists!!” Americans don’t want to hear that they are in the wrong. It’s much easier to blame someone else.

    As for the I.D. card, it is a slippery slope that you really just don’t want to start down on. Living in Japan, I am required to have an registered foreigner’s card on me at all times. Their country, their rules, fine. However, I have been stopped and asked to see my I.D. when doing something suspicious like leaving a laundromat and once waiting at a red light on my bicycle. If you think that the police won’t get too carried away, I am going to take a leap of faith and guess that you don’t look the least bit Hispanic. It is an infringement on your rights but once you are stopped there is nothing you can do!! I put up an argument but in the end I have to show them my card. Let’s keep Big Brother at arm’s length as long as possible I say.

    • May 17, 2010 11:12 am

      First of all, these illegal aliens wouldn’t even think about coming to the U.S. unless they knew that an opportunity for work awaited them.

      That’s the same reason a vast majority of people come to America. And I fail to see it as a problem.

      These jobs are of course offered by U.S. citizens knowingly breaking the immigration laws.

      I continually find it an interesting argument that we should rely on the employers, not Federal Immigration officers, to enforce immigration law. You would have the same logical argument if you required that grocery clerks validate immigration status.

      The war on drugs is a great example.

      This I agree with. Though I think the answer is to make the drugs legal.

      Living in Japan, I am required to have an registered foreigner’s card on me at all times.

      Right. And that’s not unreasonable. Is Japan some version of a racist nation?

      However, I have been stopped and asked to see my I.D. when doing something suspicious like leaving a laundromat and once waiting at a red light on my bicycle.

      Does Japanese law explicitly state that you have the right to sue the officer for racial profiling? Arizona does.

      If you think that the police won’t get too carried away

      Of course the police get carried away:

      [snark]

      All you have to do is look at the uber conservative police State of Washington. A Seattle police officer, complying with State mandated immigration reform laws, beat a Hispanic man who turned out to be innocent.

      [/snark]

      Arizona didn’t pass any version of a law that isn’t already Federal Law. The difference? State officials are now empowered to enforce ’em.

      • Andrew permalink
        May 17, 2010 11:55 am

        > I continually find it an interesting argument that we should rely on the employers, not Federal Immigration officers, to enforce immigration law. You would have the same logical argument if you required that grocery clerks validate immigration status.

        I don’t see the analogy. It is not against the law for grocery clerks to sell food to illegal immigrants. It *is* against the law for employers to hire illegal immigrants. Therefore, you would not expect clerks to check legals status, while you would expect employers to check legal status.

        We rely on employers to comply with *all* hiring and employment laws, including laws against hiring people who are in the country illegaly. We should continue to do so *and* increase legal enforcement of these laws where they are not being followed.

        This isn’t a complete solution to illegal immigration, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that if you reduce the demand for illegal employment that a reduction in supply of illegal workers wouldn’t soon follow.

      • May 17, 2010 12:25 pm

        I don’t see the analogy. It is not against the law for grocery clerks to sell food to illegal immigrants.

        Fair enough.

        you would expect employers to check legal status.

        Why would you not expect law enforcement officials to check legal status?

        if you reduce the demand for illegal employment that a reduction in supply of illegal workers wouldn’t soon follow.

        But I don’t wanna reduce the supply of labor.

        I want to make it easier to get here legally. AND I want to meet labor demands as cheaply as I can.

      • Andrew permalink
        May 17, 2010 4:39 pm

        > Why would you not expect law enforcement officials to check legal status?

        Oh, I certainly would. But I would *also* expect employers to check legal status. Currently, we know that many either don’t check or else check and then look the other way. If more employers followed the laws and stayed on top of this, it would reduce the # of cases that law enforcement officials would have to try to manage (and, obviously, they need the help).

        > But I don’t wanna reduce the supply of labor. I want to make it easier to get here legally. AND I want to meet labor demands as cheaply as I can.

        First and foremost I’m talking about reducing the supply of *illegal* labor. If we’re only talking about *legal* labor, then that’s a very different conversation about the right balance of supply and demand, minimum wage laws, etc.

        We already have one of the most open and active immigration programs of any country. I’m curious why you think the amount of *legal* immigration going on today is too limited (or too difficult)? What do you think would be the *right* number of immigrants to admit each year?

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