Arizona law fuels immigration debate

Business Times - 05 May 2010

Arizona law fuels immigration debate

While there's broad support for new law, other states are unlikely to follow Arizona before November's midterm polls


IT IS starting to sound like a cliche. But it is also true. A politically polarising debate dominates the United States and, by extension, Washington these days. Ranging from the major policy issues of the day - federal deficit, healthcare reform, financial regulations and climate change - to the silly, if not infantile - President Barack Obama's birth certificate or Sarah Palin's latest Twitter comments - Americans seem to be split between two hostile camps - Democrats vs Republicans; Liberals vs Conservatives; Left vs Right; Blue States vs Red States.

So it was interesting that after the state of Arizona had passed a new and very tough immigration law which grants new powers to police to stop and detain suspected illegal immigrants, the animated and conflicting reactions to the controversial legislation did not follow the familiar political and ideological dichotomy.

While the bill was passed by a Republican-controlled Arizona State House of Representatives and signed into law by the state's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, public opinion polls in Arizona and around the country showed a very broad support for the new law. It would make it a crime to assist an illegal immigrant.

There is a controversial provision that would allow police to stop and arrest people if they have 'reasonable suspicion' that they are in the US illegally. And if those stopped are not carrying the correct identification, they could be fined or jailed.

Hence, the most recent Gallup poll concluded that more than three-quarters of Americans have heard about Arizona's new immigration law, and of these, 51 per cent say they favour it and 39 per cent oppose it. Close to 70 per cent of voters in Arizona support the new law.

At the same time, a Zogby Interactive poll found broad support for major immigration reform and immigration regulations, with 79 per cent opposed to the notion that illegal aliens were entitled 'to the same rights and basic freedoms as US citizens'.

The majority of the illegal immigrants in Arizona (and other parts of the country) are from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries in Central America. So it is not surprising that many Hispanics who reside legally in Arizona (including those whose families have been there for several generations) are worried that the new law would make them a target of police searches for illegal immigrants and it would encourage racial profiling.

Indeed, the vague language of the new law would allow any cop to stop ('Show me your papers') any Arizonian (or visitor to the state) whose skin colour is brown - like that of most Hispanics.

Since Hispanics make up about 30 per cent of Arizona's population, one does not have to be a professional pollster to speculate that almost all of the non-Hispanics aka 'Anglos' in the state like the new law as do many Anglos who are Republican or Democrat and who reside in other states, especially those along the border of Mexico who have experienced a huge rise in the flow of illegal immigrants in recent years.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about half a million illegal immigrants reside in Arizona, a state which borders Mexico with a population of around 6.5 million people. Many Arizonians complain that the recent drug wars in Mexico have spilled over into Arizona and hope that the enforcement of the new law would help curb crime in the state.

That most Arizonians and so many Americans express support for the new law and for embracing a tougher approach towards illegal immigration may be explained in part by the fact that they are frustrated with failure by the federal government in enforcing the many existing laws that require government agencies to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country and make it illegal for companies and households to hire illegal immigrants.

After all, illegal immigration is, well, illegal; there is a legal process through which new legal arrivals can acquire American citizenship.

Indeed, that between 12 and 20 million illegal immigrants reside in the US today - the majority are from Latin America - is a clear demonstration of the inability on the part of successive Democratic and Republican administrations and Congress to enforce the existing immigration laws.

At a time of a devastating economic recession and rising unemployment, many Americans regard the cheap labour provided by the illegal immigrants as a direct threat to their economic security in addition to being a source of drug-related crime activities, especially in states bordering in Mexico, including California and Texas.

Moreover, there is also a growing anxiety among the majority ethnic European population of the country over the growing presence of illegal and legal Latino immigrants who seem to be less willing to integrate themselves into the broad English-speaking majority culture - in the same way that immigrants from, say, Italy, Greece, and Russia had done in the past.

Estimates suggesting that Latinos would constitute at least 30 per cent of the American population in 2050 - when ethnic European-Americans will probably lose their current majority status to a mix of non-white citizens (including African and Asian-Americans) - raises many fears. This includes concern among the ethnic Europeans that the US would be transformed into a bilingual society, with Latino majorities in California and Texas pressing for the 're-unification' of their states with Mexico.

It is clear that the illegal Hispanic immigrants are seen by many non-Hispanic Americans as a threat to their identity, a reflection of the same kind of fears that exist in France and other European societies over the rising number of what are seen as 'unassimilated' Arab immigrants.

But the increase in the number of Hispanics in the US and their growing electoral and political power is also holding back both Democrats and Republican politicians from appearing to be too tough on illegal immigrants.

While President Obama and the Democrats had won the support of the majority of Hispanic voters in recent elections and are not inclined to antagonise this important electorate, the Republicans are worried that their party would be stigmatised as being 'anti-Hispanic'.

Moreover, the Republicans also have to deal with the pressure from business groups who are opposed to placing restrictions on the flow of cheap labour from across the border, which explains why both Democratic and Republican leaders have been critical of the new Arizona law.

But if the White House, Congress and the two major political parties want to discourage other states from adopting similar laws like that of Arizona, they need to demonstrate that they are intent on enforcing the law on the border with Mexico which will require investing more resources in building a security fence there and in working with the Mexican government on fighting the crime gangs.

At the same time, some of the legislation being debated in Congress includes the proposal to provide an amnesty to some of the illegal immigrants residing in the country while establishing a new system that would allow guest workers from Mexico to be employed in the US under some restrictions and encourage immigration of high-skilled workers into the country.

But the passage of these and other ideas are bound to antagonise this or that interest groups which is why there would probably not be any major change in the status quo before the November congressional election, and why other states will probably end up pursuing their own policies a la Arizona in dealing with what they regard as the threat of illegal immigration.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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