Let Cooler Heads Prevail: Arizona’s Immigration Law

May 6, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of news about SB 1070 — The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act — enacted by Arizona. The law brings into focus the need for immigration reform, but other than that, the reaction to the law has been hysterical, over the top, and often grossly inaccurate.

Some of the claims seem to suggest that Arizona is about to turn into a police state.

Better to Keep Your Mouth Shut and …

I would encourage anyone criticizing the law to read the text before launching into a critique. First, nothing in the text of the law gives law enforcement officials the right or power to stop, question, arrest, and detain any individual they suspect may be in the U.S. illegally. That can only happen if a person has been detained because they are suspected of a crime or a violation of the law, such as a traffic violation when identification is asked for. Even then it’s debatable that they will do so. Phoenix has among the lowest ratios of public-safety officers to residents (3.3 per 1,000. New York has 6.5) among major cities in America. The police likely have enough to do as it is. It’s doubtful that they’ll suddenly stop everything else they’re doing and start detaining anyone who looks Hispanic.

Many cities and groups are planning boycotts of Arizona. That tends to be more talk than action. Speeches about boycotts play well to the cameras, but the record shows that not much happens when the lenses are turned away. Despite all the populist anger at certain Middle Eastern countries and Venezuela, we continue to do business with them. And of course, we aren’t exactly going to stop trading with China despite the People’s Republic having such a stellar record on human rights. Business contracts are generally written for the long-term, and with supply chains extending around the world, attempting to disrupt them over some ill-conceived outrage is unlikely to be supported by most executives. Tourism boycotts may occur, but they are not likely to be widespread either. Centuries of systematic discrimination against native populations in Mexico and Canada have not prevented legions of Americans from vacationing in Cancun and Vancouver. If anything, the opposite may happen: if SB 1070 results in lower crime in Arizonan cities, they’re more likely to attract both tourists and business.

Hypocrites of the World Unite

Press coverage of this law has been rather disingenuous, especially given that this type of legislation is the norm in other countries. It would be utterly hypocritical of citizens of most other countries to claim any outrage over SB 1070. In France, Germany, and much of Western Europe, laws applying to immigrants carry even more stringent provisions. Japanese law requires that all foreigners must carry an alien registration card at all times and present it to the police without any reason when requested. Failure to do so results in a $2,000 fine. The French police have the right to stop and question anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, at any time, and not just in the context of another violation of the law. Discrimination against foreigners from certain countries is the norm in Europe. In Switzerland and Austria, being from an Eastern European or Middle Eastern country means an automatic premium for most types of insurance. Those practice have not resulted in boycotts of French wines, Japanese cars, or Swiss Army knives.

In short then, not much is likely to happen, beyond some people getting dyspepsia.

The Problem with Immigration (policy, that is)

Our immigration policy is a mess. Much of what we have today has its roots in conditions after the end of the second world war. The most visible problem has to do with who’s eligible to immigrate. It’s either a lottery, or primarily based on unifying families. Most other countries give preference to people with needed skills or specific talents. Ours barely touches on that. Eligibility for H1-B visas is equally applicable to hairstylists and software engineers. The number of visas is arbitrarily decided, with no basis in demand for skills. This makes no sense at all.

Much of the anger toward illegal immigrants is directed at migrant workers, primarily working in construction and agriculture. Admittedly there are employers seeking to exploit labor from across the border, but the evidence shows that such employers are a tiny minority. Studies going back decades show that much of the labor from Mexico and South America works in areas where there just are not enough domestic workers available. The argument that’s usually made is that if only employers would pay a high-enough wage, then Americans would be willing to take those jobs. That is not an accurate assessment of the situation. For one, margins in agriculture are extremely low, and most producers have no capacity to raise their prices to counter the effect of paying more wages. Forcing them to pay higher wages will only result in more agriculture being done overseas as is already happening. Second, even with 9.7% unemployment, those who are out of work are not looking for jobs working in fields. Third, even if there were higher wages available, is that what most people aspire to, mind-numbing manual labor?

The solutions to the problem have been available for a long time: a guest worker visa for agricultural workers, and a change in immigration policy to favor the more talented workers. But it doesn’t seem likely this will happen anytime soon.

SB 1070 reflects Arizonans’ frustration with the federal government’s lack of action on immigration. Regardless of who’s to blame, nothing has been done to address the problem. A state cannot pass laws on immigration reform on its own, but it can enforce what’s already there. This is all the more reason that the reaction to the law is odd, considering that some 70% of Arizonans support it. Since we live in a democracy, Arizona’s lawmakers are only responding to the will of the people — which is presumably what they were elected to do. I’m all for immigration reform, as I’ve written on many an occasion on ERE, but I would not attempt to substitute my judgment for that of about 5 million Arizonans.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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