This is the last of the re-run columns for the week, and it is the oldest. I wrote this in early 2010 (before the election), right when Arizona had passed a sweeping anti-immigrant law. A portion of this law was struck down just this week in the Supreme Court, making it an interesting and relevant look back.
It's also perhaps the most comprehensive writing I've ever done on the subject, which is another reason why it's worth reading again. Some of the facts on the ground have changed (unemployment is more than two points lower than the "9.9 percent" cited in the article, for instance), but the underlying debate really hasn't. What has truly changed is the political situation of the Republican Party. After George W. Bush reached a high point in the Latino vote (getting over 40 percent) in his two elections, the Republican Party may not see numbers this good for a generation. Mitt Romney only pulled in 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012. Smart Republicans are worried about this trend, because of what it means for their chances of ever re-taking the White House from the Democrats. Parochial Republicans (mostly in the House), however, are much more concerned with assuaging their constituents' angst over Latinos. Meaning the fight on the Senate floor is just the beginning of what could turn out to be a very ugly power struggle.
There really are no easy answers to be found in the political realm. The Republicans have centered their efforts over a "trigger" which will stop the path to citizenship until ever-more-unrealistic goals can be certified. The Democrats have successfully made the "path to citizenship" itself the centerpiece of their efforts. The Border Patrol is now the most expensive and extensive federal police force in existence -- it is bigger than the Drug Enforcement Agency, bigger than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and -- stunningly -- bigger than the Federal Bureau of Investigations itself. Think about that for a moment. Our federal policing priorities already are more heavily weighted towards policing the border than fighting every other type of federal crime.
I've always said if we really decided to make the southern border impenetrable it would be possible to do so. It would also, however, be prohibitively expensive. We could hire enough guards to stop each and every border-crosser, but by doing so we might wind up with the Border Patrol being bigger than the Pentagon. It would cost an obscene amount of money, but it is in no way outside the realm of possibility. The question is how far down this road we as a people want to go. And what price we are willing to pay to get there.
Anyway, this is my final thought this week on the subject of immigration. Fresh, new columns will return on Monday. Thanks for your patience in dealing with my summer re-run season in the meantime.
[Originally published May 13, 2010]
Arizona is a truly beautiful state. It has many spectacular sights, of which the Grand Canyon is the most awe-inspiring. But Arizona is also a state of forbidding landscapes -- much of the state is desert or near-desert, where the heat of the midday sun is a force of nature to be heavily respected, if not downright feared. But what has put Arizona into the news recently is its "forbidding" political landscape. Specifically, on immigration.
Before I get into recent laws Arizona has passed, though, we have to take a more detailed look at the geographical landscape, because to truly understand the issues involved, people should really understand what it is they are talking about. Arizona's southern border with Mexico is a long and desolate stretch of land, for the most part. There are places along this route as big as Rhode Island with just a handful of people. A crow could travel for hundreds of miles without ever flying over a human being -- in pretty much any direction it chose to fly. The border itself is 389 miles long, and only has nine towns on its entire length -- only three of which are bigger than "one-horse" or even "no-horse" status. The longer leg (the angled western part) of the Arizona/Mexico border has only three towns, the largest of which is home to less than 10,000 people. And hundreds and hundreds of miles of empty desert. As you'd expect, there aren't a lot of roads near the border, either, and a total of only six official border crossings in the whole state. To put it another way, this is Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote territory. Lots of cactuses, and not a whole lot else. It's hard to picture just how empty this region is, unless you've experienced the deep desert before.
Arizona's demographics also require a look, before people from outside the region can adequately comment on their politics. The most populous county contains Phoenix, and (due partially to the vastness of counties in the West) is the fourth-most-populous county in the entire country. Before the advent of modern air conditioning, the state was pretty empty. Arizona was the last of the 48 contiguous states to join the Union, 98 years ago. But Phoenix is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and has been for a while -- urban planners actually use it as a textbook "bad example" of how "urban sprawl" should be avoided. Arizona, like a few other states, is a prime retirement location, and a lot of its current residents moved there from elsewhere in the country. Racially, Arizona has a relatively low percentage (58.4) of non-Hispanic whites, a relatively high percentage of Hispanics (30.1), and a higher percentage of Native Americans (4.9) than African-Americans (4.2). It also has the second-highest percentage of illegal immigrants of any state, estimated to be 7.9 percent.
Arizona is on the front lines of immigration. Ironically, building border fences on the more accessible parts of the U.S./Mexican border in other states has made the problem worse for Arizona, because it pushed the human traffic out into the desert, which is much more dangerous for illegal immigrants crossing the border. And there is a raging war taking place on the entire Mexican border region between rival drug cartels and the Mexican authorities, which has recently claimed over 20,000 lives. Some of this violence is spilling over into Arizona, giving Phoenix the dubious distinction of being the kidnapping capital of the country right now.
In other words, what is an abstract subject for most of America, or (at best) a minor political issue is neither in Arizona. It is real, it is tangible, and it affects their state on a daily basis.
The problem for Arizonans is that there is a fairly simple fact which many outside the state don't adequately realize or fully take into account when discussing immigration policy. Because while America has lots of immigrants from lots of different places, there aren't a whole lot of immigrants in Arizona who aren't Latino. There isn't a problem with Norwegians flooding the state, or Canadians, or Irish folks. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants in Arizona are Latinos. But, even though it is undeniable that "almost all illegal immigrants in Arizona are Latino," what those clamoring for harsh laws tend to discount is that there are a whole bunch of legal Latino residents and citizens in the state as well, so the opposite is not true -- "almost all Latinos are illegal immigrants" is just not a factual statement. And some of their families have been here since before white people arrived (which begs the question: who really is the "immigrant" here?). To say nothing of the Native American population (Arizona is home to the largest reservations in the nation, which take up the entire northeast corner of the state).
I have driven all over Arizona, as well as visited border regions in California, New Mexico, and Texas. And I have been stopped in more than one state by police who have set up roadblocks to check for illegal immigrants. What invariably happens is this: I am waved over to the side of the road. The officer or officers approach my vehicle, take one look at me, and wave me back on my way. I have never even had to roll the car's window down (and let the air conditioning escape into the oven-like desert air) in any of these encounters. I have been stopped when I had a passenger with me who was a foreigner with a travel visa, and who also didn't even give the officers pause, due to being white. Every single vehicle I've seen getting more than cursory attention had brown-skinned people in it.
The only difference between what already exists within about 100 miles of the border in any of these four states, and the law that Arizona just passed is that up until now the officers were federal and not state employees. The agency names may change (INS, ICE, Border Patrol) but what was the same was that they were all federal agents.
So I have to say that the people who are now protesting the "racial profiling" aspect of the new Arizona law may have missed an obvious point. Any immigration policing anywhere in the entire border region already has a gigantic aspect of racial profiling to it. The only difference, really, is who pays them to do so. Don't believe me? Travel there and drive around a bit, and see for yourself (after all, haven't you always secretly wondered what the land we bought in the Gadsden Purchase looks like?).
But the police have a valid point, as well. Sure, they could take the time to check every white person's papers out as stringently as they check brown people's. But it would largely be a waste of their time to do so, as far as they're concerned. They might catch a random illegal immigrant from Europe or Australia once in a blue moon, perhaps, but it would not be a very effective use of their time, as they measure these things. Since almost every illegal immigrant in their jurisdiction is Latino, then it makes perfect sense to them to look harder at Latinos. This is an inconvenient fact, for those decrying the racial aspects of Arizona's new law, but it is a fact nonetheless.
The unintended consequences of Arizona's new law are worth mentioning, as well. Because it will effectively mean that any illegal immigrant who is the victim of a crime in the state will likely not report it to the police. Or, more ominously, say an illegal immigrant merely witnesses a crime against a citizen. They would be mighty reluctant to help the police solve the crime, no matter how serious, since they would be putting themselves at risk by doing so.
Arizona meant to provoke Washington by passing their new law. They also have one particular sheriff in the state who has pushed the issue in a big way, and instituted his own local Draconian policies long before the state's recent actions. Arizona has every right to shove the issue onto Washington's plate, because it was pretty obvious that before they did so, both major political parties had reached a sort of handshake agreement to not even attempt to deal with the problem until after this year's election. But Arizona is tired of waiting.
The supposed "easy" answer to all the immigration problems favored by the Right is to "close the border." In the first place, this is not possible. The flow of people across the border on a daily basis simply is too big to be halted, because the vast majority of it is legal. But even closing the border to "all illegal traffic" isn't really a viable answer as well, although it sounds good to a lot of politicians who have never even seen the region.
Oh, sure, we could actually close the border down to all illegal traffic. We could fence the whole thing off, and put enough federal agents out there to catch any person who attempts to enter. The problem is that this would take a massive amount of police to accomplish. Much, much more than we're willing to pay for. We could station agents every few miles, and have enough high-tech equipment to stop anything larger than a rabbit from getting through. But that's a lot of miles to cover, and to dedicate the personnel to adequately do so would require an enormous budget-busting amount of money. And this money would be a constant drain, because it would have to be paid out for as long as you wanted the traffic stopped -- forever, in other words.
Of course, there are other answers to the problem of illegal immigration, but in the current political climate, it's hard to see anything commonsense being agreed upon. The recession in America in the past few years has actually slowed the illegal traffic more than any other single factor, but as the economy picks up again, so will the traffic. So that's not really an answer.
The best idea I've heard would be to craft the Draconian laws for the employers. This, however, would likely require some sort of biometric de facto national identification card, which is anathema to many Americans, purely on philosophical grounds (you think the conspiracy theories about Obama are intense now, just wait until a "national ID card" is seriously debated). But, for the sake of argument, assume some sort of national ID card is enacted (Social Security cards are currently a joke, you have to admit), and some sort of quick and easy online employee verification system is instituted. Hand in hand with this would have to be some extremely harsh penalties for employers. Say a $100,000 fine for every single illegal immigrant caught working at any employer, or 10% of the total assets of the business -- whichever is higher. That would make employers think long and hard about paying people under the table, I would wager. Perform random workplace checks on all employers, especially in industries that have traditionally used more than their fair share of illegal workers, such as farming and construction. Add to this a few publicized stings of homeowners hiring illegal immigrants for yard work or child care, with equally harsh (but lesser) fines and penalties, and the entire atmosphere would change.
Of course, this would have its downside as well. A head of lettuce might cost ten bucks, but when you bought it, you could feel good about the fact that only legal hands ever touched it on the way to your supermarket. If agriculture had to pay fair wages for backbreaking farmwork to legal residents, the price of food would indeed rise -- perhaps exponentially. As would the price for many other things people buy, as well. This is the true counterargument to really getting tough on the employer side of the equation, but it is not often made in public. The deep dark secret of many industries is that they rely on illegal labor to keep prices down. These industries quietly lobby Congress to keep things pretty much unchanged when it comes to penalizing employers, because it benefits them to do so.
Americans, as a people, go through phases of anti-immigrant fervor. These grow and peak during periods of high immigration and high unemployment. We started instituting harsh immigration laws pretty soon after we became a country, when the target was the French. In the late 1800s, it was the Chinese. In the early twentieth century, it was European Catholics (Irish, Italians, etc.) and Eastern Europeans (Poles, Hungarians, etc.). During the world wars, anti-German feelings ran high, as did anti-Italian and anti-Japanese feelings in World War II. Our century-old "war on drugs" is one of the legacies of anti-immigrant lawmaking (opium dens and Mexicans smoking "marihuana," in particular). Up until the 1920s, though, America pretty much let anybody in who wanted to come (except the Chinese, who were singled out during this period specifically). If you arrived at Ellis Island and you weren't obviously mentally deficient or a disease carrier, you would likely be allowed in. Meaning that for many Americans, pride in the fact that "our family came here legally" is kind of meaningless, because we weren't exactly setting quotas at the time (the way we do now) for legal entry from certain countries.
Throughout a lot of this, anti-Latino feelings were mostly localized in the border states and surrounding regions. But with the decline of the family farm in much of the rural areas in this country in the past few decades, many farming regions went through a decline in population, where small towns across the country became virtual ghost towns with boarded-up stores outnumbering the businesses that were somehow hanging on. More recently, Latinos have discovered these areas and have moved in to help pick the crops and work in the meatpacking plants. This has meant towns have been revitalized in far-flung areas of the country, but it has also meant the earlier residents of these towns are now confronting issues they've never really thought much about before -- such as whole districts of their towns where Spanish is the predominant language, both spoken and on business' signs. Because this migration has happened relatively quickly, in only a few decades' time, it has bred a real culture shock to many, in very far-flung regions of the country.
Arizona's new immigration law will likely be challenged in court, and the whole thing (or significant parts of it) may be declared unconstitutional. That pesky Fourteenth Amendment talks about "all persons" being given equal rights, not "all citizens" or "all legal residents," after all (and it does indeed differentiate between these). The word "citizens" doesn't appear in the Bill of Rights at all, instead referring to "persons" or "people," meaning these amendments apply to everyone standing on U.S. soil. And singling certain people out for police attention because of how they look (the color of their skin) is the real intent of the Arizona law, even if they did craft it in an attempt to pass constitutional muster (and then immediately went back and amended it to make it even more acceptable, legally). Which federal judges will likely see through.
But the larger picture is that the real solution to the illegal immigration problem absolutely must address the employers' side of the equation. If all employers in the United States were as afraid of going to jail (or paying steep fines which could destroy their businesses) as they were about, for instance, child labor, then the problem would largely fix itself. If it became known throughout Latin America that it was almost impossible to find work in America any more because nobody would hire them without valid papers, then the flood of people crossing the border would slow to a trickle. And there would be a reverse migration of recent arrivals back across the border when they realized that there simply would be no way for them to make money here. Of course this doesn't address the immigrants who have been here for a long time -- people who have spent most of their lives here, in some cases.
But when the issue comes up in Washington (if it does, this year or next), look for a lot of grandstanding on the issue from both sides of the aisle on one facet of the problem or another. Republicans will call for more fences and more border cops, but then will likely balk at the price tag. Democrats will call for a path to legalization, but they know that doing so when unemployment is 9.9 percent is going to be a tough sell. But the one aspect of the problem which both parties will likely seek to avoid, or which will be bargained away in the congressional horse-trading, is likely to be the one thing which could go a long way towards solving the heart of the problem. Because it is the only piece of this puzzle which has wealthy and powerful interests lobbying to keep the status quo.
In response to Arizona's new laws, many Americans elsewhere are exercising their economic freedom by boycotting the state. This is meant to show Arizona that there are consequences for what they have done, to the tune of millions of tourist dollars. This has been done before, here, when the state refused to allow a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. But this time around, even if Major League Baseball joins the boycott, it may not work. Because sixteen other states are already scrambling to pass similar laws to what Arizona just passed. If more than a few states pass such laws, look for the boycott movement to fall apart as its target gets spread too thin. Nationwide, popular opinion is in favor of Arizona's stance, not that this really means anything (a lot of people were for Jim Crow laws, too, but that didn't make them right). One way or another, though, Arizona is going to goad the federal government into acting, or at the very least, into starting the stalled discussion again. What comes of this is truly anybody's guess at this point.
It is said that there are two signs on our border with Mexico -- "No Trespassing," and "Help Wanted." If the jobs didn't exist, and if it was almost impossible to find work here, the people would stop coming. If that meant exploding prices for farm products, then likely it would breed a countermovement to allow more Latinos in to legally work. But this part of the equation, if ignored, means that no matter what other measures you enact into law are likely to change much of anything, at least in the grand scheme of things.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant