This morning I received a very courteous email from a fairly prominent political writer with conservative-to-libertarian sentiments. He wanted a little clarity on the madness that is the Arizona immigration kerfuffle. Basically, is there really a problem, or are politicians doing an ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain to cover their own misdeeds, and in the process creating a national frenzy? Because I loathe doing work without getting some kind of mileage out of it, below is my response:
I think the best insight into Arizona’s immigration politics is the fact that anti-immigrant fervor is concentrated in the Phoenix area, where you have the largest numbers of new arrivals in the state, and that Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who has responsibility for Phoenix), the nationally visible nativist militant, was supportive or at least agnostic on immigrants and dismissive of the close-the-border fanatics until five or six years ago (you’ll find a mention of that here). At that time his popularity was fading even as nativist sentiment was rising, and he switched horses.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say the worst excesses of the anti-immigrant frenzy seem to come from lily-white snowbirds who recently settled in Arizona to escape the Minnesota winters, only to discover that the place is a bit too brown and spicy for their tastes.
Arizona has the same economic mess as many other states — worse than most — and our politicians have been more than eager to find scapegoats to divert attention from their spending spree (PDF) and looting of the coffers. Several years ago, I worked on an effort to pass a taxpayer bill of rights to cap spending growth — we were soundly defeated and the money continued to fly out the door. The tab has now come due.
Almost in unison, politicians blamed hard-working Mexican immigrants (who, yes, often ignore government red tape in search of opportunity) for the electorate’s economic distress. This provided an easy opening for Sen. Russell Pearce, who is just barely coy about his white-supremacist sentiments, to push through the recent anti-immigration bill. Yes, really. SB1070 was authored by a state senator who is pretty open about his anti-semitism and racism and who hangs out with Nazis.
That all of this is opportunistic should be apparent from the fact that, according to the latest figures, crime is going down, not up in Arizona despite a few terrible and widely publicized incidents involving violence by drug gangs and coyotes (people smugglers) — the sort of criminals who inevitably move in to capitalize on illegal markets. Illegal immigration is down all across the border. In fact, because of the lousy economy, illegals were fleeing the state well before SB1070 passed [Note: according to the linked report, the number of illegals in the state dropped by one third from 2007-2009, while the number dropped nationally by 14%].
The sheriff of Pima County which, unlike Maricopa, is actually on the border, calls the new law “racist,” “disgusting” and “unnecessary” and is refusing to enforce it. And this is a guy who generally takes a hard line on immigration.
As for a Mexican anschluss … In some ways, we should be so lucky. As mentioned above, though, crime is actually down along the border and people can travel more safely through the border region than in years past. I have no doubt that some radicalized graduate students in Mexico City — and Los Angeles — would like Mexico to reclaim the southwest, and maybe we should let them. Mexico has its fair share of stupid laws, but in some ways it’s more free than the U.S., if only because of a healthy disrespect for the state. But those graduate students are likely to get plenty of opposition — from the Mexican migrants who cheerfully left Mexico and its economy behind.
Honestly, the Mexican gangs are still doing a healthy trade — more in drugs than immigrants these days. But if any piece of Arizona was ceded to them, it was done so by accident, and it’s populated only by rattlesnakes and cholla.
I hope that helps! Let me know if I can be of further assistance.
Let me elaborate here a bit on my “we should be so lucky” comment. I’m not trying to minimize the problems that Mexico faces, but this is a country in the process of becoming more free, both in terms of civil liberties and economic freedom. The United States, at the same time, has lost ground in terms of both civil liberties and economic freedom. Also, Mexico gets heavily dinged for the easy corruption that pervades the political system; while there is much to criticize about the culture of la mordida, it also has a way of greasing tight official channels so that people can ease through them. Overregulated regions of the United States tend to develop similar unofficial means of dealing with official obstructionism and ineptitude. That is, official corruption is not entirely bad.
Mexicans, in my experience, do intend to be more skeptical than Americans about the virtues of obedience to the law and compliance with government directives. Perhaps the best result would be for the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico to engage, as they traditionally have, in relatively free and open exchanges of goods, services, people and ideas, allowing the cultures to merge and move toward a happy middle ground.
To get back to that healthy relationship, we need to tell the nativists to get stuffed.