Arizona thinks twice
For a lesson in how not to fix the immigration system, we give you SB 1070, Arizona‘s defiant effort to drive undocumented workers and their families back where they came from.
A year ago, lawmakers there voted to require state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws, including demanding papers from anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. The law adds state penalties for some violations and encourages citizens to sue local governments that don’t police immigration vigorously.
“Attrition through enforcement” is the goal. It says so right in the legislation. Most of its provisions were quickly put on hold by a federal judge after the Obama administration sued, claiming Arizona was usurping federal authority.
That didn’t stop state lawmakers from introducing more measures that would have made immigration cops out of everyone from teachers to hospital workers to rental car agents. Meanwhile, bills modeled after SB 1070 were introduced in more than a dozen states.
This week, an appeals court upheld the stay, signaling that the court will likely side with Obama on constitutional grounds. That’s a ruling that won’t sit well with Arizona and other states — if they’re usurping federal authority, it’s only because the feds weren’t exercising any. But even with most of the law on hold, SB 1070 has proven to be bad P.R. and bad immigration policy.
An economic backlash cost Arizona $150 million in lost convention business alone. Immigrant-friendly governments and individuals have boycotted the state and its products. Some performers won’t come to Arizona. Businesses saw contracts canceled or weren’t allowed to bid on others. An estimated 100,000 Hispanics — not all of them illegal — have left the state since the law was passed. Businesses weren’t happy to see them go. Immigrants are consumers, after all, and a source of reliable and cheap labor.
All of that is bad news for a state that was among the hardest hit by the recession. That’s why, as the kick-’em-out crowd moved forward with more restrictive measures, Arizona’s business community called for a timeout.
A letter signed by 60 business leaders urged lawmakers to stop trying to pass punitive laws to deny birth certificates to immigrant babies or ban illegal immigrants from driving a car or require schools to check the immigration status of students. The letter stressed the need “to address our structural deficit and (e)nsure an economic environment that attracts and retains high-quality jobs.”
Chambers of commerce throughout the state signed similar letters. And lawmakers listened. All of the measures were defeated in a single day.
Business leaders also took the lead in Utah, which passed its own immigration package last month. The measures require police to check the immigration status of those arrested in serious crimes. But they also create a two-year work permit for undocumented immigrants and a program to recruit guest workers from Mexico.
Taken together, the two states’ plans show why a state-by-state approach to immigration is a bad idea. Utah’s pragmatic plan welcomes workers, at hard-line Arizona’s expense.
The truth is that Utah’s plan, like Arizona’s, steps on federal toes. It likely wouldn’t withstand a legal challenge either. But it’s a good model for the sort of comprehensive reform that ought to be under way in Congress. Its foundations are enforcement, a market-driven visa system, an acknowledgment of the economic role played by immigrants who are already here and provisions to allow them to work legally.
Arizona’s one-dimensional, enforcement-only approach ignores the root of illegal immigration: Businesses need workers. When the system fails to provide enough visas to fill the available jobs, employers and workers simply find ways around it. Those needs should drive the immigration system.
That’s why it’s good to see the business community stepping up to call for a practical and realistic approach to immigration reform. While pleading with their own legislatures not to enact measures that are hostile to immigrants, business leaders in both Arizona and Utah also stressed the need for a federal solution.
Until that happens, states will continue to take matters into their own hands. This week, Georgia legislators sent an Arizona-style immigration bill to their governor. Five other states are still considering bills. This needs to stop.
Immigration reform is your job, Congress. Do it.