Stumbling Over a Mess of Your Own Making – Arizona and Immigration Reform
When Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law last week, she presented her signature as a legitimate response to a failure of policy at the federal level. No fan of racial profiling, she described what is now set to become the nation’s toughest immigration enforcement law as simply “another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.” The day before, when announcing the new Arizona Border Security Plan, the governor was more explicit still about that federal failure to fix. “Almost from the day I took office,” she told a gathering of local dignitaries and journalists,
I have been asking Washington to fulfill its primary obligation to the citizens of our state: to secure our southern border; to enhance the rule of law’ … Make no mistake: The responsibility to ensure that we have an orderly, secure border – not just some imaginary line in the dirt or a rickety fence – belongs to the federal government. They have failed.
Arizona has to act, so the argument goes, because Washington will not. We currently have a need for leadership at the state level – according to the Brewer thesis – because of a failure of leadership at the federal one. These are fighting words indeed, and yet strangely enough, they are words to which President Obama himself was immediately willing to give credence. Responding publicly and negatively to the Governor’s action, he chose to say this about Arizona Senate Bill 1070, and only this, when addressing 24 service men and women who had just been awarded American citizenship.
Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others. And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.… I’ve instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation. But if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.
But whose failure are we talking about? Why is it, to quote the Governor again, that the people of “Arizona, have for too long paid the price for those failures”, failures that have “hurt [their] economy, stifled trade and legal travel, and pitted neighbor against neighbor”? Whose failure? The President chose not to say.
Is it that the Governor’s impaired inability to “protect Arizonans and Americans from violence committed by terrorists, organized crime syndicates, drug cartels and common criminals” is the result of some liberal corporate plot to flood the American south west with cheap illegal labor? Or does the absence of legislation to stem the flow of illegal immigration lies instead with the very conservative forces in Arizona and national politics who most hail her resolve in criminalizing the illegal presence? Who is the guilty party here – the liberal left or the nativist right?
Surely it is the latter, and by some margin!
We could have long left behind us any need for the undermining of civil liberties now underway in Arizona if the bipartisan immigration legislation introduced into the Senate in 2006 had passed. That was legislation introduced, we must remember, by two Republican Senators (Mel Martinez and Chuck Hagel) and supported strongly then not just by liberal Democrats but also by Arizona’s own John McCain. It was legislation that contained proposals for the building of a border wall, of the kind so desired by the Governor, and legislation that proposed to expel newly-arrived illegal immigrants.
So why then was it not passed? It was not passed because it also contained a route to eventual citizenship for undocumented workers who had labored here for five years or more, and so fell victim to a well-orchestrated grass-roots rebellion inside the Republican Party against any legislation that smacked of amnesty.
Federal legislation was not passed in 2006, and has not been passed since, because moderate Republican voices of the Martinez and Hagel kind have been entirely silenced by tea-party type pressure. They are again being silenced now – as we see with the reinvented John McCain – silenced at the very moment when comprehensive immigration reform is once more rising to the top of the federal agenda.
So Governor, there is an easy way to remove this need for unilateral state action. It is to support the passing at the federal level of comprehensive immigration reform that combines border security, tough penalties against the employment of undocumented labor, a supervised guest-worker program and a penalized route to citizenship for those already here.
You tell us that you have struggled mightily with this issue, considering “the significance of this new law long into the night” and praying “for strength” as you did so. Well, struggle and pray no longer. The answer stands starkly before you. If you want federal policy that will protect law abiding citizens and help the economy of your state, the legal framework for that policy is there for the taking. It is there in the bill introduced into the House before Christmas by Representative Gutiérrez. It will be there in a similar bill now to be tabled in the Senate. So why not face down J.D. Hayworth, deal with the genuine complexities of leaving behind an era of mass immigration illegality, and offer the kind of moderate and informed Republican leadership that was once associated with the name of John McCain?
That would indeed be state-level leadership worthy of national praise. That would indeed be leadership worth praying for.
This view is developed more fully in David Coates & Peter Siavelis (editors), Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know (Potomac Books, 2009) and in chapter 7 of David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (Continuum Books, 2010).
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.