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Third, letting states and localities take the lead reduces social friction. States and municipalities that are angry about illegal immigration can vent without dragging the whole country along.
In the longer term, state and local action could provide the test bed from which a national consensus might grow. "It's not just the cliche about being laboratories of democracy," Napolitano says. "I do think different approaches need to be looked at in terms of what really works. Out of chaos may come order."
Immigration advocates worry that states and localities, left to their own devices, would run a race to the bottom by competing to punish illegal immigrants. Rick Swartz, a Washington consultant who has long been active in immigration reform, argues that crackdowns would become contagious as illegal immigrants were pushed from state to state.
Maybe. But crackdowns may lose their popularity when dishes go unwashed and houses unbuilt. In the wake of Arizona's new law, some businesses in Chandler, an immigrant-heavy community near Phoenix, "now seem like ghost towns," according to The Arizona Republic. "Many of these shops that cater to the undocumented population are struggling to stay afloat as many of their customers either pack up and move or save money as they wait to see if the new law will go into effect." Until now, anti-illegal-immigrant agitation has been a form of social protest. When the backlash begins to sting, look for a backlash against the backlash.
A second objection to state and local leadership is that immigration is a federal responsibility. But Washington's monopoly on immigration policy has not been a big success lately, and in any case states are muscling in. Instead of trying to reform everything at once, Congress might be better advised to hang back and give states and localities their head.
"The centrality of illegal immigration to the current discontent about the direction of the country may be taking us back again to a welfare moment," write Stanley Greenberg, Al Quinlan, and James Carville in a recent report for Democracy Corps, a Democratic-leaning research group. The comparison is telling. As with welfare a generation ago, the problem strikes deep cultural chords, the solution is not obvious, and the country is divided. In the case of welfare, Washington's answer was to abdicate to the states, whose innovations ultimately paved the way for a new national policy -- one that proved both stricter and more humane.
As of now, only one presidential candidate has had a kind word for local leadership on illegal immigrants. Her name is Hillary Clinton. In the fuss over her poor debate performance, few observers focused on what she actually said on October 30 about Spitzer's licensing plan:
"I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.... Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it."
Articulate, this was not. But neither was it nonsense. On a better day, Clinton might have said more or less the same thing this way: "I don't particularly like what Spitzer is doing, but New York should be allowed to try it." That was the right answer. She should have stayed with it.
© Copyright 2007 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.