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Illegal immigration‘s front lines

Stephen Tuttle - May 10th, 2010
Arizona has passed an anti-illegal immigration bill and all hell has
broken loose. Protests have been held, boycotts planned, the usual
suspects have crawled out from under their rocks, and Shakira has spoken
out. Shakira? Sure. Arizona was desperate for advice from a native of
that bastion of freedom and democracy, Colombia.
Don’t be too quick to judge Arizonans. As a 35-year resident of Phoenix
before returning to my native Traverse City a couple years ago, I
understand the frustration and desperation that has finally boiled over
into a terrible piece of legislation.
Most of the country has little understanding of the depth and breadth of
the illegal immigration problem in Arizona. This is not an occasional
annoyance in which a few folks have trickled into the state and taken a
few crummy jobs. What
Arizona has experienced is a human flood and it’s been going on for a long
time thanks to the inaction and incompetence of the federal government.
During the peak flows in the ’90s, when Arizona’s economy was rocketing
along, some estimate there were 2,000 illegals a day entering the state.
Day after day after day, the equivalent of the population of Traverse City
every week. They didn’t all stay, but even now the best estimates are
that more than 400,000 illegal immigrants are permanent residents of
Arizona. They have created a shadowy sub-culture accepting low-paying
jobs and trying to avoid authorities. Even worse, violent drug smugglers
have now taken over much of the human trafficking trade and made Arizona a
world-wide leader in kidnapping and a national leader in fake
identifications and identity theft.
Arizonans have been stuck with the bills including dramatic increases for
spending on education, the criminal justice system and healthcare. Just as
bad, the minimum wages -- or less -- that illegals are willing to accept
has depressed the entire unskilled job market. The feds, despite decades
of pleas from Arizona and other border states, have done little to secure
the border or provide funding for Arizona’s costs.
So Arizona has acted on its own with legislation that allows local law
enforcement to function as immigration officers. They can now attempt to
determine a person’s immigration status during the course of law
enforcement encounters. If you can’t produce your papers you go to jail
without passing “Go” or collecting $200.
The law quite likely violates both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments
and opens the possibility of ugly racial profiling.
To be fair, most officers will simply ignore it, having other things to
worry about; but the overzealous will create problems. Since Arizona has
a large legal population of Hispanic American citizens, many of whose
families have been in the area since before Arizona became a state, the
potential for trouble is very real.
The debate about illegal immigration, like everything else, has broken
down into two intransigent camps. In one camp are the round ’em up and
ship ’em home folks. Their battle cry is “What don’t you understand about
illegal?” On the other side are the amnesty folks who like to call their
opponents racists, nativists and xenophobes. (As an aside, it’s fair to
say there is an ugly component of naked racism involved in this being
perpetrated by a very vocal minority. One need only read the blogs and
other internet postings coming out of Arizona these days to understand
There are an estimated 10 million to 14 million illegal immigrants in the
country. We don’t know their names, don’t have their descriptions, don’t
know where they live. Rounding them up is a practical impossibility.
We’d have to suspend the Constitution and start checking the papers of all
310 million U.S. residents. The costs would be astronomical.
On the other hand, blanket amnesty means citizenship for all illegals.
Though the number of evil-doers in the group is a small percentage of the
total, it is a large raw number. It would be foolish.
The real solution is for Mexico and other source countries to get their
economic and social acts together and provide the kinds of opportunities
that would encourage people to stay home; but that is extremely unlikely.
Mexico, especially, is a beneficiary. They export, among others, a chunk
of their uneducated and under-educated lower economic class, and their
countrymen in the U.S. then ship home at least $16 billion in cash
American politicians of both parties have painted themselves into corners
from which there is little room for escape. Most Republican voters
oppose any kind of amnesty. But large corporations who contribute to
Republican politicians exploit the cheap labor and like the status quo.
Democrats think amnesty will provide them with millions of new voters,
though the research indicates the new citizens will not vote as a bloc,
but split their votes about like everyone else. So we have an
intractable stalemate.
The politicians in Washington are now talking about immigration reform
legislation. Don’t hold your breath. They’ve had more than three
decades to find something workable and have done nothing. Common sense
left the building about the same time Elvis did.
So don’t count on a solution anytime soon. But be gentle when considering
my friends in Arizona. They’ve been on the front lines a long time,
they’re tired, frustrated and angry and their recent legislation, awful
and wrongheaded though it may be, was enacted based on the idea that
anything would be better than more nothing.

Stephen Tuttle is a political consultant who formerly wrote for the
Arizona Republic.

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