November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Politics: Illegal Immigration

Illegal Immigration:

In Arizona, Politics, Business & a Society Ill At Ease

Introduction

Several months ago, in the midst of the political hubbub regarding Mexican immigration concerns and Arizona’s move to create its particular approach to the problems at hand, Robert Murray Davis sent along his comments to me. Given that the issue remains in the public’s political and economic spotlight, and as I am in Mexico as we speak, it seemed an appropriate time to present Mr. Davis’s piece, along with some additional comment that may help better frame the topic in both political and economic measures. In the end, and consistent with our on-going purpose in this column to help further legitimate dialogue, we hope a better understanding of the variables tied to another complex problem facing our country can result.

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Over the past week, I’ve had messages from friends wondering what is going on in Arizona. Unless you are living in a mine and have no access to any media, you don’t need to be told that they are referring to Governor Jan Brewer’s April 23 signing of Senate Bill 1070, sponsored by Republican state senator Russell Pearce of Mesa.

The bill makes it a crime to be in Arizona illegally, a crime to work or ask for work in Arizona, a crime to impede traffic while picking up a laborer or being picked up, and to have, in effect, any association with an illegal immigrant. It not only allows but pretty  much commands all law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal status and to arrest, without warrant, anyone whom they suspect (“reasonably”) of being deportable. It also states Arizona’s intent not to comply with the Real ID act, which sets standards for identification card and is the only realistic way of beginning to deal with widespread forgery and fraud. The real kicker is the provision that allows anyone to sue any official
or agency suspected of not fully enforcing federal immigration laws. The obvious though not quite overt sentiment contradicts Big Bill Broonzy’s line, “If you’re brown, stick around,” and the intended consequence would be an exponential increase in DWM (Driving While Mexican) arrests.

Opponents of the law say that it will lead to racial profiling — unless everyone pulled over is asked for proof of citizenship, an irony both delicious and obvious. The legal community tends to agree that the law is unconstitutional; law officers tend to argue that it is: a) unenforceable, b) an inefficient use of their time. The state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, hardly a voice of the far left, maintains that the law won’t do anything to discourage drug and people smuggling, and not only will damage Arizona’s reputation nationally, but also hurt an economy already badly wounded. The lead editorial in the April 25 issue stops only a little short of a call for taking to the streets.

So why do 70% of people polled approve of the law? Why did the legislature pass it and the governor sign it? Why does Senator John McCain support it and threaten to filibuster against a national immigration bill very much like one he introduced a few years ago? Why does he tell Bill O’Reilly that illegal immigrants are deliberately causing car crashes on our highways?

The last two questions are easiest to answer. Brewer and McCain are desperate. This is an election year, and both the governor and the senator are in contested primaries, facing candidates far to their right — the kind that in recent years have won primaries. One almost has to feel sorry for Governor Brewer, a superb example of someone who has reached her level of incompetence. She was Secretary of State, a position that no one knows anything about. Then Governor Janet Napolitano, who had tried to bill the federal government for the cost of capturing and housing illegal immigrants, resigned to become head of the Department of Homeland Security and has since become the target of the criticisms she had leveled when still governor. [Arizona doesn’t have a lieutenant governor, a need felt only when the governor resigns or, more commonly, when the governor is impeached.]

Governor Brewer’s biggest challenge during her time in office has been dealing with the Republicans who control both houses of the legislature. Tax revenues at all levels of government are disastrously down. The state has closed most of the rest stops on the Interstate and some state parks, and the safety net for children and the elderly is so full of holes that it might as well not exist. Every large school district is sending out notices to hundreds of teachers that they will not be rehired for the coming school year.

To attempt to deal with shortfalls in the billion dollar range, Brewer proposed a temporary one-cent sales tax increase. Since many legislators have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, they weren’t having any of that and only with great anguish brought themselves to allow voters to decide in a special election.

Somehow the sales tax issue gets conflated, in the minds of some, with the immigration issue, with posts complaining that new tax revenue will go to supporting illegal immigrants. Here, as elsewhere, we have passed the bounds of rational discussion. Indeed, demagoguery on both sides has led to the hardening of increasingly extreme positions. Almost no one seems to be interested in arriving at practical, let alone reasonable, solutions to the undeniable problem of illegal immigration.

Some of the more moderate posts responding to web articles are variations on “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”on the one hand, and “Have you no human compassion?” on the other. But many others pretty much boil down to charges that opponents are either Nazis (uncharitable from the Christian viewpoint) or traitors. Some people marching against the law and against earlier crime sweeps by “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio, have carried Mexican flags—hardly a way to sway the undecided. The easiest way to be hated by almost everyone is to suggest that illegal immigration raises real and serious issues and should be dealt with in ways that are both humane and effective.

And there are real issues, a fact that may help to account for the 70% approval rate of the law. The best figures available put up to half a million undocumented people in Arizona, and that’s a guess. Sociologists and economists have debated about whether this segment of the population benefits or hurts the economy, but since the housing bubble burst and bankruptcies, foreclosures, and layoffs have reached levels not seen since the 1930s, these arguments have become so irrelevant that they have disappeared from the media.

The real problem is that Arizona’s border with Mexico has become the most porous because Texas, New Mexico, and California’s borders have been much more effectively sealed. Moreover, the people crossing the border have become not only more numerous but more dangerous as the trade moves in drugs and people and moves out guns and stolen cars. As long as Arizonans thought that illegals were coming in to do landscaping and construction (now dormant if not dead) and other low-paying jobs, the business community and much of the population were willing to look the other way.

But a series of incidents, perhaps isolated but certainly high profile, has focused attention on the issue. Gangs of coyotes, as the people smugglers are called, have established drop houses in the Phoenix area, sometimes imprisoning their clients to extort more money. One gang trying to steal another’s human cargo engaged in a running gun battle on the interstate highway between Tucson and Phoenix. More recently, an Arizona rancher was found murdered near the border, with the only footprints leading back into Mexico.

Given these issues, it is perhaps surprising that only 70% of the population approves of the new law. Granted, in 2008 “Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin” made up just over 30% of Arizona’s population, but in the recent past some Hispanics, emphasizing their own legality, have spoken out against illegal immigration.

The new law does not take effect for ninety days, and the diverse groups opposing it hope for swift and successful court challenges before other legislatures copy it. Some hope that the fallout from its passage will force Congress to recognize that the law attempts to address an issue that affects not just Arizona but the whole country. (Assuming that the law was intended to force just this outcome wildly overestimates the strategic and intellectual powers of its proponents.) In an election year, when cries of “no amnesty” are sure to be raised, it is probably unrealistic to hope that Congress can work
seriously on a comprehensive immigration bill that is both humane and workable, though many would settle for workable. But in the foreseeable future it is the best hope we have.

Almost certainly there’s no relief in sight from the Arizona legislature. A representative from Skull Valley (I’m not smart enough to make this up, but trust me, it exists. I’ve been there) has introduced a “birther” bill requiring all presidential candidates to submit birth certificates in order to be listed on Arizona ballots. J. D. Hayworth, the ex-Congressman and ex-talk show host who opposes McCain’s renomination, ups the ante by wanting to require that candidates for any office do so. Meanwhile, any citizen over twenty-one can carry, just about any place where it’s not specifically forbidden, a concealed weapon without bothering to get a permit or any training.

This law, and to an undefinable extent the immigration law, stem from the belief or desire of many citizens that Arizona is still a frontier state and should be allowed to do, individually or collectively, anything they please. Although this attitude may have something to do with states’ rights, those have not been at the forefront of arguments for either law. Those and the birther bill are more likely the result of a distrust of a government felt to be both remote and controlling and from a familiar mix of social and economic uncertainty and a desire to find an easy explanation and if possible a scapegoat.

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It is not hard to understand Mr. Davis’s position — that the attempts by Governor Brewer seem to fall short of what might be considered valid public policy. But obviously there is more to consider in this context, more not necessarily tied to support one side or the other, but on point with understanding elements connected to the issue of “illegal immigration.” In this sense, let’s see if we can elevate the nature of the discussion.

For example, what is the actual history of illegal immigration in America? Can it be said that only those who have come into the country illegally are to blame for their being here? What about the employers who have utilized their services to further their interests at home, as well as our interests at the market? Isn’t this part of larger, economic, systematic concerns? And what about a public which, seemingly always in the hardest of economic times, turns its frustration into blame on other people for their plight, rather than point that frustration at the system that is driving people on both sides of the border? I mean, aren’t both sides somewhat victims of the same system?

And what about this system itself — and I’m talking about the system of capitalism that we see staring us in the face everyday – what is it about this system that has over our history fostered divisions between races and genders related to economic/employment concerns, to the point of blaming each other, while it continues on in its way of maximizing profits almost with impunity? And on this point, how much do we as a public actually know about this system? And how did this lack of important knowledge happen by the way, in the freest, most powerful country in the world? How is it that the public knows so little about the system under which it lives, so much so that we are easily moved into turning on each other (illegals or not) out of a desperation of not knowing where else to turn? And what about our leadership (or lack thereof) on either side of the political spectrum, leadership that prefers to tweak the battle over state and federal power, or what is and isn’t racism, all while our collective ignorance over the economic system that is pushing us and these concerns all over the place continues to run, without a peep of notice from either political side? Shouldn’t we be angry over how little we understand the system, and what our leadership has and hasn’t done in this regard?

I heard recently at a conference that cheap labor is only a part of national and international trade – that in order to accommodate the latter we must have the former. This sounded overly crass to me, and in asking the proponent of this statement if cheap labor was related to ‘fair’ trade, I was told that when it comes to money, there really is no such thing as ‘fair.’ It was also suggested with a bit of a snicker that, as I am an American, I should already understand this.

Perhaps this is the way it is, perhaps when it comes to money, we should take what we can get and so be it. In this context, issues like immigration, employment, crime, war, racism, poverty, education, housing, health, and principles like justice, fairness, freedom and equality can be talked about till the cows come home, but when it comes to money honey, well – we, particularly in the U.S., should know the drill by now.

As shameful and as hard to swallow as this seems, maybe it’s our own self-delusion that is getting in the way. This would suggest that we may prefer to talk one way, but behave in another. If this is not the case – if we really want to sort through issues in ways that can make our country better, let me suggest that when it comes to concerns like the immigration issue, we spend at least as much time and emotion and energy trying to figuring out our own self-identity and its relationship to capitalism as we do looking to the Mexicans coming across our borders. Maybe then (and maybe is used in its strongest sense) we can clear the air of more than just the dust around the Rio Grande.

ω

Editor’s note:

After forty-five years in English departments of various American, Canadian, and Hungarian universities, Robert Murray Davis began a career as a writer and consultant. He has written  or edited two dozen books, most recently Mid-Life Mojo: A Guide for the Newly Single Male and The Literature of Post-Communist Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania: A Study. He has lectured, given conference papers, and done poetry readings in England, France, Germany, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Romania.

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• The next article will be on an issue closely tied to immigration legislation, employment and money — the drug problem and legalization. This is a solution (a lesser of evils “fix”, if you will) that many, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox, believe is the most logical way to address a problem that is on all levels clearly out of hand.

Jim Palombo, Politics Editor