The hypocrisy of Arizona bashing

If the Grand Canyon state’s immigration laws seem authoritarian, wait till you see what the Democrats are proposing.

Alex Standish

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How is it that, in one breath, Democratic senators in the US Congress can denounce Arizona state’s new immigration law as racist and, in the next, submit proposals to introduce some of the most draconian immigration policies in the world? The Arizona state government has been lambasted for demanding anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to ‘show us your papers’, but the Democrats want to go even further, demanding that immigrants ‘show us your biometric data card’.

Arizona’s new immigration legislation (Senate Bill 1070) was signed into law on 23 April by Republican governor Jan Brewer, and will come into effect this July. One section in particular has drawn a lot of criticism. It says that enforcement of the law ‘[r]equires a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the US’.

Given that phrases like ‘legitimate contact’ and ‘reasonable suspicion’ are vague enough to provide police with significant leeway when deciding who to approach, critics have not been slow to see the the potential for racially-infused abuse. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the law ‘misguided and irresponsible’; President Obama suggested it was ‘unfair’. Others have been rather less restrained, likening Arizona to Nazi Germany.

The criticism has been backed up by threats, too. California has talked about breaking economic ties with Arizona; corporations and professional associations have said they will relocate conferences and meetings; and New York Democrat Jose E Serrano even suggested that next year’s All-Star Major League Baseball Game should be moved from Arizona’s capital city, Phoenix. Such has been the level of outrage that on Saturday there were pro-immigrant rallies in a number of US cities including Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Washington DC, ranging in size from a few hundred to 50,000. By the end of the week Governor Brewer backtracked and was adding a follow-on bill to outlaw racial profiling in Arizona.

The few in favour of the bill point to the state’s swelling number of illegal immigrants (estimated at a few hundred thousand) and the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform. ‘Arizona’s law makes what is already a federal offence – being in the country illegally – a state offence’ asserts George Will in the Washington Post. Effectively then, Arizona is merely taking it upon itself to enforce immigration controls that exist at a federal level, suggests Will.

However, critics of the immigration law are correct about its implications. In a state that has become the main crossing point for Mexicans into America, how does a police officer suspect a person of being there illegally without considering the colour of his skin? Effectively, the law gives the police the green light to question the immigration status of any Latino they like. This is not to ignore the prior use of racial profiling by Mexican border states as a response to immigration. It is just that while racial profiling has been used extensively before, it was not then legal. Arizona’s new immigration law will now provide a defence against potential race discrimination lawsuits. By writing discriminatory practices into law, Arizona’s state government is codifying the second-class status of all immigrants and legalising policies of harassment towards Latinos.

Unfortunately, too many of Arizona’s immigration law’s critics are let down by double standards. No sooner have they damned Arizonans as white supremacists and un-American than they turn around with their own plans to keep would-be immigrants from coming to America. And so it was that last week, that at the same time as liberals were laying the proverbial boot into Arizona, Democrats submitted to Congress an outline of their plans for immigration reform including: a social security card containing a biometric data chip; an electronic system which requires employers to monitor the immigration status of their employees by scanning social security cards; and a system to catch and deport individuals who overstay their visas. Whereas Republicans have long opposed the introduction of just such an identity card scheme on the basis that it infringes upon individual freedom, liberals have had no such qualms about these authoritarian measures. ‘I’d be a lot more sympathetic to [Arizona’s immigration] law, in fact, if it required the police to check the immigration status of every single person they pulled over’, writes Megan McArdle in Atlantic Monthly.

At the same time as catching illegal immigrants, the Democrats’ proposal would also expedite the residency status of high-skilled immigrants, especially those who have an advanced degree in science or technology from an American university. Or, put another way, Democrats plan to adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards poor people who are not in a position to obtain a visa but want to come to America to work their way up from the bottom (just like most immigrants to America). At the same time, however, they plan to welcome respectable, well-dressed and well-educated immigrants. Effectively, Democrats are saying that Arizona’s discrimination is bad, but our more sophisticated form of discrimination is okay. In my view, racial profiling may well be un-American, but so too is immigration legislation that denies poor people a shot at the opportunities available to those living in the US.

As some commentators have pointed out, Arizona is not the problem. The state government may well have stepped over a line that many Americans find unpalatable, but it is far from alone in passing anti-immigrant bills. In the first three months of 2010 alone over one thousand bills and resolutions aimed at immigrants were introduced at state level, a number of which were passed into law.

Mostly, such bills addressed employment verification, eligibility for unemployment and other benefits, requiring proof of immigration status for driving licenses and other state documentation, and bills addressing bail, parole, no-plea bargains and other court proceedings with respect to immigrants. Even the most liberal states such as Massachusetts have tabled bills to deny welfare to undocumented workers (although this particular one failed to pass into law). Neither is state enforcement of immigration something that the federal government has discouraged. On the contrary, through an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department for Homeland Security has signed 66 section 287(g) agreements with 23 states delegating enforcement functions to state and local enforcement agencies. This makes local law enforcement an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Funding for this programme rose from $5million in 2006 to $68million in 2010.

This week’s finger-pointing at Arizona is not a cry in defence of immigrants. Rather it is a case of liberals finding a counterpoint against which they can be seen to stand for something. It’s a stance that consists of little more than saying ‘we are not like those right-wingers… we don’t go around harassing people on the basis of what they look like’. For these people, Arizona-bashing is as self-serving as the attacks on Sarah Palin. It makes them look good and gives them a sense of purpose in the absence of doing something about the country’s many problems.

Of course, there is also the real world in which immigrants actually live and there are those who genuinely do support immigrants coming to America and having the same chances that they did. Many of these people were no doubt out in number on this weekend’s rallies, but, unfortunately, there is no political representation of their views. Other than a few murmurs that immigration is good for the economy, there is no moral case being put forward that welcoming immigrants is a virtue around which to build a society (previously known as the American Dream).

Then there are also residents of Arizona who are worried for their own security as violence and drug gangs from Mexico spill into their state. The vastly different levels of affluence and development on either side of the border make for an unstable situation. Yet this instability needs to be seen for what it is: a problem of law and order created by the inequalities of capitalism, not the fault of immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. What is clear in this debate on immigration is the chasm between political rhetoric and the real lives of Americans, including those seeking to become American citizens. Both Republicans and Democrats are proposing anti-immigration measures which are more symbolic and self-serving than serious attempts to meet people’s needs. Looking back, the failed 2007 immigration reform bill proposed under then President George W Bush looks almost humanitarian by comparison.

While this bill did also include measures to strengthen border controls and an employment verification system it was mainly designed to legalise the status of the millions of undocumented immigrants working here. Over the past three years opinion towards immigration has hardened, as evidenced by all the anti-immigrant state bills. The new Democratic Party proposal does still include a path to legal status for such immigrants, but this is now seen more as an inconvenience in what is otherwise an authoritarian clamping-down on immigrants, the aim of which is to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across the southern border. Welcome to post-immigration America although, thankfully, word has it that the likelihood of Congress passing immigration reform this year is small, which is time enough to rebuild the moral case for immigration.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Contributing material to this article has been provided by Joel Nathan Rosen, associate professor of sociology at Moravian College and co-author of Reconstructing Fame: Race, Sport, and Evolving Reputations.

Previously on spiked

Alex Standish analysed a study that revealed whites would be a minority in America by 2042. He also called for Americans to remake America the land of the free. Sean Collins reviewed The Big Sort. Nancy McDermott looked at the meaing of the 2006 pro-immigration marches. Or read more at spiked issues USA and Immigration.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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