Mission Attrition

How Arizona reflects changes in the country's immigration politics. From our new July/August issue, just in time for a federal lawsuit.

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

In Mexico City this May, hundreds marched outside the U.S. embassy to voice their disapproval of a newly enacted Arizona law designed to crack down on illegal immigration. Some waved banners saying, "Stop police repression in Arizona" and "Not too many migrants, too many racists." One woman protesting told the BBC that President Barack Obama should sign an executive order banning deportations until the United States Congress reformed -- i.e., liberalized -- the nation's immigration laws.

Over the past four years, it has become an annual spring ritual to hold a heated public debate over illegal immigration. This custom began in 2006, when President George W. Bush -- with a little help from a bipartisan gaggle of friends in the Senate -- made good on his promise to unveil "comprehensive immigration reform." By May Day, the streets of major American cities were filled with protesters carrying signs (and in some cases, Mexican flags) as they demanded a path to citizenship for the 10 to 20 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Some illegals walked off their jobs to demonstrate their importance to the American economy.

By the time Labor Day passed, however, comprehensive immigration reform was as unfashionable as wearing white. What the Bush administration called "reform" a majority of the American people regarded as amnesty, a reward for lawbreakers that would overwhelm any accompanying improvements to border security by incentivizing further illegal immigration. After all, they had been through this before with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan: the amnesty took place but the promised enforcement never materialized.

Amnesty failed when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, with GOP congressmen refusing even to take up the Senate immigration bill in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections. It failed again in 2007, when the Bush administration worked with a Democratic congressional majority to pass similar immigration legislation. The old gang that promoted comprehensive reform in the Senate has broken up: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has disavowed his former top legislative priority; Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) has died; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) smelled a trap when Democrats tried to revive immigration reform this year and refused to go along.

WITH WASHINGTON UNABLE TO ACT, it fell to Arizonans to ignite the annual immigration debate. They proved more than up to the task. Arizona's SB 1070 was enacted because the federal government had failed to guard the nation's borders, most porous at the 90,000-square-mile area identified by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as the Tucson Sector. Paradoxically, enforcement elsewhere has probably made the problem worse there. "When you plug a hole in the wall, the water looks for another spot to flow through. Arizona is that spot," Nogales, Arizona, police chief Jeff Kirkham told the Washington Post.

None of this means very much to liberals and ethnic activists who live at a safe distance from Arizona's illegal immigration problem, however. As soon as the bill was signed into law, various groups announced boycotts of the state. The protests even spilled onto the basketball court as the Phoenix Suns donned "Los Suns" jerseys during Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals in an effort to distance themselves from the Arizona law. Even the Economist reported that a "conservative border state is at risk of becoming a police state."

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles accused Arizona of using "German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques." This was probably the first His Eminence ever agreed with Seth MacFarlane, creator of the vulgar animated sitcom Family Guy. MacFarlane said that "[n]obody but the Nazis ever asked anybody for their papers." He cracked, "Walking down the street, a cop can come up to you and say ‘May I see your papers?' I think they should be required to ask that question in German if the law sticks around." President Obama merely called the law "misguided" as he ordered his Justice Department to "closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation."

If requiring non-citizens to carry some proof of legal residence on their persons makes a country a Nazi-style police state, then the United States has been one since 1940 -- that is, when the requirement to carry a green card, visa, work permit, or other "papers" first became federal law. What Arizona's statute does is to make several federal immigration violations state crimes as well. But the most controversial provision is this: "For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency...where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person..."

At issue is the meaning of phrases like "lawful contact" and "reasonable suspicion," which civil-rights activists insist are vague and open to abuse. But the law specifically bans the use of race or national origin as the sole basis for reasonable suspicion of illegal status. The "lawful contact" part is to stipulate that the police are only to inquire about immigration status if something else, like an arrest or a traffic stop, is already going on.

Nevertheless, it isn't easy to deal effectively with illegal immigration in a state like Arizona without engaging in racial profiling. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that nearly 80 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico or some other Latin American country. About 30 percent of Arizonans are Hispanic, the majority legal residents and many of them native-born Americans with deep family roots in this country. It is precisely this complexity that makes immigration such a polarizing political issue.

YET "POLARIZING" DOESN'T SEEM like quite the right word to describe SB 1070, at least within the confines of Arizona. Polls have repeatedly shown that upwards of 70 percent of the state's voters approve of the new law. Gov. Jan Brewer's decision to sign the bill and defend it against all critics -- including the president of the United States -- has produced a dramatic turnaround in her political fortunes.

For months, Brewer's numbers among Republican primary voters were lackluster and she was well below 50 percent in hypothetical general election matchups with the Democrats. In May, a Rasmussen poll showed Brewer zooming to 45 percent in the GOP primary, with her nearest rival drawing 18 percent. She claimed just 26 percent in April and was locked in a three-way tie in March. Her approval rating among Republicans similarly leapt to 85 percent.

In the general election, Brewer saw her lead over likely Democratic nominee Terry Goddard rise from just 44 percent to 40 percent in mid-April to a more significant 52 percent to 39 percent in May. The percentage of people with a "very favorable" view of Brewer reached 24 percent, a 16-point jump in just one month. Brewer's improbable, partially immigration-fueled recovery is reminiscent of another first-term Republican governor's revival 16 years ago. In 1994, Pete Wilson snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in California with his high-profile support -- almost unique among the political class -- for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative designed to deny taxpayer moneys to illegal immigrants.

Democrats hope this history will repeat itself in one other way: they -- and more than a few Republicans who disagreed with Prop 187 -- believe Wilson's immigration stance alienated Hispanic voters and contributed to the California GOP's decline. By taking a position on the Arizona law that is unpopular in the short term, Democrats believe they can over the long term do to the home of Barry Goldwater and John McCain what has already been done in the state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan: transform a Republican stronghold into a Democratic bastion.

Of course, it isn't clear how much of an effect Wilson's hawkishness on illegal immigration had in turning California blue. The state voted heavily for Bill Clinton for president and elected two Democratic senators in 1992, two years before the push against illegal immigration was even on the ballot. Wilson began 1994, a golden age for Republican incumbents, trailing Pat Brown's liberal daughter. He pulled ahead after embracing Prop 187, which passed with 59 percent of the vote.

Subsequent Republican statewide candidates did poorly, but few of them made Wilson-like sounds on immigration -- until Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, admitted he voted for Prop 187 and made an issue out of driver's licenses for illegals during his successful run for governor. When California Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Meg Whitman criticized Arizona's SB 1070, primary opponent Steve Poizner sensed an opening and Whitman was forced to pivot back in a more Wilsonian direction.

BUT THE BIGGEST SHIFT has come from the Republican politician most associated with comprehensive immigration reform. John McCain backed off the idea during the 2008 Republican primaries, when his immigration partnership with Ted Kennedy nearly derailed his candidacy. "I got the message," McCain promised on the campaign trail. "We will secure the border first." In his senatorial primary against former congressman J. D. Hayworth, however, McCain makes Pete Wilson look like a piker.

Consider McCain's television commercial on the issue, filmed in the border town of Nogales. McCain walks with Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu and begins to rattle off the illegal immigration-related social disorders that afflict the community: "Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder." "We're outmanned," the sheriff replies. "Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona." McCain asks if his plan, cosponsored with fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, is the right one: National Guardsmen on the border, 3,000 new border patrol agents, and "complete the danged fence."

"Plan's perfect," the sheriff assures McCain, before concluding, "Senator, you're one of us." McCain once described that "danged fence" to Vanity Fair as "the goddamn fence" as a way of signaling his reluctance to build it. If Democrats believe leniency toward illegal immigration will benefit them in a future, more Hispanic political market, Republicans -- even those sympathetic to immigration expansion -- are increasingly betting that the current shape of the electorate makes border enforcement imperative now.

These divergent views of immigration and partisan self-interest have hobbled bipartisan cooperation on the issue in Washington. This is the main reason Lindsey Graham pulled out as the sole Republican supporter of both amnesty and cap and trade. He believed the Democrats were bringing up immigration as a "cynical ploy" to get Republicans to take the lead in voting it down so that Democrats could reap the dividends with Hispanic voters -- possibly at the expense of Graham's friend McCain. "Let's be clear," Graham wrote in an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "A phony, political effort on immigration today accomplishes nothing but making it exponentially more difficult to address in a serious, comprehensive manner in the future." (Reid is also banking on heavy Hispanic turnout to save his Senate seat this fall.)

It remains to be seen which side is reading the tea leaves correctly. According to the Census Bureau, the share of the Hispanic vote actually fell slightly from 6 percent in 2004 to 5.9 percent after House Republicans killed amnesty in 2006, suggesting a pro-immigration Latino backlash might have been the least of the GOP's problems that year. In Arizona, while 30 percent of the residents are Hispanic only 12 percent of the voters are.

Moreover, Hispanic voters appear to be ambivalent about illegal immigrants, who are in some cases their relatives and in others their competitors for jobs and legal immigration opportunities. A recent Zogby poll found that 56 percent of Hispanics and 68 percent of African Americans say immigration is too high. Only 7 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of blacks said immigration was too low. While only 31 percent of Hispanics voted for Proposition 187 in California, 47 percent voted for the very similar Proposition 200 in Arizona in 2006. Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico -- the first Hispanic woman nominated for governor by either party -- takes a hard line against illegal immigration.

In addition to being more carefully written to withstand judicial and civil libertarian scrutiny, Proposition 200 benefited from a campaign that was more sensitive to Latinos than the Prop 187 juggernaut. Pro-enforcement Arizona legislator Russell Pearce emphasizes "illegal is a crime, not a race." But when an immigration-related issue can be recast as a referendum on the acceptance of Hispanics in American society, it can galvanize Latinos. This may have already happened with Arizona. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 70 percent of Hispanics opposed the new law while the country as a whole favored it by 64 percent to 34 percent.

SOME CONSERVATIVES HOPE they can square this circle. A group of evangelical leaders including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, and Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel endorsed what they called a "Just Assimilation Immigration Policy" that is "neither amnesty nor mass deportation" but "an earned pathway to citizenship." The problem with this is that it is precisely the path to citizenship, rather than the payment of fines or meeting of other requirements, that many Americans -- and most conservatives -- define as amnesty.

Arizona is trying a different "third way" between amnesty and mass deportation. SB 1070 is just the latest statute attempting to make attrition through enforcement the official state policy. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies that champions this approach, offers a simple description: "Shrink the illegal population through consistent, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law." This strategy would "combine an increase in conventional enforcement -- arrests, prosecutions, deportations, asset seizures, etc. -- with expanded use of verification of legal status at a variety of important points."

The idea is to entice illegal immigrants to self-deport, reducing their numbers to a more manageable level without massively disrupting local economies that have grown dependent on their labor. Can it work, and at what cost? The people of Arizona are about to find out -- if the Obama Justice Department will let them. Americans in the other 49 states will be watching closely. And so will politicians looking to cope with illegal immigration without angering a diverse electorate.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.