Arizona Immigration Law Arguments Come After the Damage is Done


Well, I guess I was wrong about that turn signal. But while I'm here …

Whatever the outcome for Arizona's deservedly controversial anti-immigration law, the constitutional qualities of which are now being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, much damage will already have been done. My wife's pediatric practice in northern Arizona is located muchas millas from pretty much any kind of medical specialist to whom she might refer cases. Other than the short list of practitioners in Flagstaff, that requires a trip to the Phoenix area, in Maricopa County, or to Tucson, which can really only be reached by driving through Maricopa County. Unfortunately, Maricopa County is ground zero for Arizonan xenophobia, and an excellent place to get pulled over by the police — especially Sheriff Joe's oh-so-dedicated deputies — for driving while suntanned. So a significant number of my wife's patients have chosen to forego that particular gauntlet of crewcut peril and either put off treatment or seek it out of state. In fact, quite a few Hispanic patients and staff alike have decided to leave Arizona entirely because they're just not comfortable in the state anymore — even though many of them were born in the U.S. or are otherwise legal residents.

Numbers you want? Then numbers you shall have. According to a Spanish-language study (PDF) released by the private BBVA Bancomer foundation, in the months after the passage of Arizona's anti-immigration law, which essentally set local law-enforcement loose to stop people on suspicion of the most minor infractions and interrogate them as to their immigration status, 100,000 Hispanics left the state. The Department of Homeland Security estimates the illegal population of Arizona at 360,000 in 2011 (PDF), down from a high of 560,000 in 2008 (PDF).

Of course, if you're a stickler about getting the permission of the local satrap before setting up residence on the other side of an imaginary line on a map, you may think that's all well and good. But it comes at the cost of handing the police extraordinary power to stop people on the flimsiest pretext, demand their papers, run background checks, and otherwise harass the civilian population. The law rode in on a wave of xenophobia that has empowered thuggish populist demagogues like Joe Arpaio and Russell Pearce who, ironically, seem to look to Latin American caudillos for their political inspiration.

And all of it unnecessary. Even as the law passed, Americans were managing to make their country a less attractive place to inhabit in all sorts of ways unrelated to Arizona's immigration fetish, and Mexico was becoming a remarkably less sucky place to live. The result has been the end of net migration from Mexico, and possibly an outflow back too the home country. Among those going back was my cleaning lady, who decided that she preferred checking in passengers at Benito Juárez International Airport over slopping out my bathrooms.

Can't really say I blame her.

So we ended up with mass police raids on popular restaurants, small businesses and even rival political agencies to arrest undocumented dishwashers and janitors even as those dangerous criminal types have been flowing back across the Sonoran desert to better job prospects at home.

Arizona's immigration law may sink or swim before the Supreme Court, but the stirred-up resentments, lowest-common-denominator populism and (because we never seem able to step back from this) smirking cops by the side of the road will remain.