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The Arizona Backlash: Immigration Debate Stirs Historic Passions

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Immigration is the canary in the coal mine of American politics. Like unseen deadly gases in a mine, fear of foreigners has a capacity to strike without warning or detection. Only a few months ago, immigration was a back-burner issue in the 2010 election campaign; a poll in immigration-conscious California ranked it a distant fourth among issues of concern to Republican voters.

Then came the overwrought restrictive Arizona law giving police broad power to detain illegal immigrants. This measure -- Senate Bill 1070 -- has put illegal immigration on the agenda in the California and Texas elections and prompted showdowns in statehouses on immigration bills from Massachusetts to Idaho. The Arizona bill has public support, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center and The New York Times, but is opposed by a majority of Latinos. These polls also show support for comprehensive federal reform. Pushing President Barack Obama to step up to the plate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) placed immigration reform on the Senate agenda. Reid, who opposes the Arizona bill, is trailing in his bid for re-election and seeking Latino support.
ImmigrationMost of us are offspring of immigrants. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, in words later quoted by President Ronald Reagan: "All of our people all over the country -- except the pure-blooded Indians -- are immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, including even those who came over on the Mayflower."

FDR made this comment in a 1936 campaign speech in which he celebrated the appealing idealism of the national motto, "E Pluribus Unum, "out of many, one." But unity was unobtainable during the Great Depression. At the time of FDR's speech Mexicans in the Southwest were being repatriated so they would not take jobs from American workers. (The Mexican-born population in the United States fell from 639,000 in 1930 to 377,000 in 1940.) The sweeps in which Mexicans were rounded up lacked proper judicial process: an undetermined number of U.S. citizens who "looked Mexican" were also deported.

There is a persistent dualism in American attitudes toward immigration. On the one hand we celebrate diversity and recognize, as demographer Michael Barone wrote, that the nation owes its shape and concentrations of population "less to the logic of geography than to the movements of great streams of newcomers who together created the country." On the other, we worry that the United States will attract more foreigners than it can comfortably absorb.

Although that concern is focused on illegal immigration across the 1,950-mile border shared by Mexico and the United States, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that roughly half of the 10.75 million illegal immigrants in the United States arrived legally and overstayed their visas. It is a sad fact that the mechanisms for tracking those who overstay visas -- from Mexico or anywhere else -- are inadequate.

Historically, anxiety about immigrants had less to do with their legality than with the race, ethnicity or religion of the newcomers. At various times alarms were sounded about Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, among others, all of whom were seen as threatening American culture and values. In California, agitation erupted against Chinese workers who had been brought in to complete the transcontinental railroad but were perceived as taking jobs from whites. Congress passed a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Later, California farmers were similarly alarmed by competition from Japanese immigrants. A restrictive 1924 federal bill contained a clause that virtually excluded Japanese immigrants. Japan was incensed; the exclusionary clause signaled a long downturn in U.S.-Japan relations that eventually culminated in war.

On occasion, most notably in the case of the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan, fear of foreigners and Catholics combined with virulent hatred of blacks. But every outburst of anti-immigrant fervor also produced a political backlash. During the 1884 presidential campaign, Republican nominee James Blaine was on track to win the presidency over his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland. Six days before the election Blaine gave a speech in New York City in which a Protestant minister warmed up the crowd by denouncing the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." These were not Blaine's sentiments. His mother was Irish and Roman Catholic and he espoused Irish independence from Britain and was accordingly popular with the New York's large Irish-American community. Most historians agree that in the tumult of the rally, Blaine simply failed to hear the minister's bigoted phrase, which he almost certainly would have repudiated. Democrats pounced, distributing handbills with the offending remark in Irish-American neighborhoods. The Irish deserted Blaine, costing him New York's 36 electoral votes by the slim margin of 1,149 votes and the presidency.

Modern anti-immigrant campaigns have also produced unintended consequences. In 1994 California's moderate Republican governor, Pete Wilson, hitched his re-election campaign to Proposition 187, an initiative that would have denied medical and educational benefits to illegal immigrants. A Wilson television commercial showed Mexicans pouring across the border to the sound of scary music as an announcer declared, "They keep coming!"

It's often forgotten that Wilson, an able governor, led in the polls before he endorsed Proposition 187 and could have won without it. But his name has become indelibly linked with this measure, approved by voters but in large part subsequently invalidated by the courts. The principal political legacy of Proposition 187 was alienation of Latinos, whom the Democrats mobilized as they swept to victory in the state elections four years later. Latinos have retained their Democratic affiliations and now constitute more than a fifth of registered voters in California. Their influence may be tested in this year's U.S. Senate election. Embattled Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer opposes the law, while all three Republicans who are vying to oppose her support of it.

Will there be a broader political backlash?

In the month since SB 1070 became law, some Republican candidates have been reluctant to embrace it. One weather vane is Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, seeking re-election against the Democratic nominee, former Mayor Bill White of Houston. Perry, as shrewd as he is conservative, said that duplicating the Arizona law "would not be the right direction for Texas."

Opponents of restrictive immigration laws have also won some statehouse challenges, including rejection by the Massachusetts House of a bill to bar illegal immigrants from receiving state and federal benefits. Across the country in Idaho, where a sweeping anti-immigrant bill was rejected in committee in March, milder legislation requiring employers to verify electronically the legal status of employees has stalled. These outcomes notwithstanding, supporters of restrictive anti-immigrant legislation have certainly succeeded in pushing the issue to the forefront of this year's political debate. There are perils in this for Democrats in general and for President Obama in particular. The latest Pew Research Poll showed that only a quarter of Americans are satisfied with the president's performance on immigration.

Indeed, there has hardly been any administration performance on this issue at all. Overall, the Obama administration has done reasonably well against economic headwinds, winning a major victory on health care and apparently nearing one on financial reform legislation. But the White House wants no part of an immigration fight in a midterm election year. It's hard to fault the president for ducking this divisive battle -- indeed, some of those who urge Obama to undertake it were criticizing him only a few weeks ago for trying to do too much on too many fronts instead of concentrating on economic recovery. But it's also hard to escape the fact that federal inaction on immigration has left a void that states can't fill piecemeal.

SB 1070 may be unconstitutional. In any case, the measure is such a mess that the Arizona Legislature changed it after it was signed into law, replacing the requirement that police could inquire into immigration status during any "lawful contact" to a more precise standard that police could do so only if they are stopping or arresting someone for other reasons. Still, it's understandable that Arizona felt the need to act. Illegal immigration is down overall but has increased in Arizona, in part because a federal crackdown at border crossings in Texas and California funneled the flow of illegal immigrants into other states. Kidnapping and gang violence are on the rise in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and it is not surprising that there is public support for restrictive legislation.

The Arizona bill, however, does nothing to address the most pressing issues of illegal immigration: securing the border and finding a just solution for immigrants who have lived here for many years and are contributing to American society. Indeed, these solutions are beyond the reach of any state. On most issues your columnist shares the enduring view of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that states are "laboratories of democracy" that should be allowed wide experimental latitude. Immigration, however, cries out for a national solution. If SB 1070 forces the president and Congress to consider genuine immigration reform, it will have done us all a big favor.

This article first appeared in State Net Capitol Journal and is reprinted with permission.

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59 Comments

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ettu

The POTUS, at this very moment, is giving his POLITICAL talking points on immigration reform. He mentions approx 11 million illegals in the Country...I would venture to say the number is triple that amount. He talks about "moral responsibility" and "being a land of immigrants" and once again ignores the wellbeing of the American CITIZENS. We, the taxpayers, who cannot support our own families today, are expected to assume this added burden on our personal, and national, resources, out of a sense of morality and humanity. SECURE THE BORDER, Mr President, and then come back to the American people with your proposal of a pathway toward citizenship, which every American citizens interprets as "amnesty." WHEN WILL YOU PUT AMERICA FIRST? Do we not deserve to maintain our own standard of living before giving so much to so many others? Do we not have a right to expect the President of America to support the American citizens FIRST?

July 01 2010 at 11:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Cindy

What so many people seem to miss altogether is that the key word here is not immigration, it is ILLEGAL. If I do anything ILLEGAL, I face consequences. Why should ILLEGAL immigration be okay? Can there even be such a thing? Seems to me immigration is a legal act, sneaking in somewhere is not.

Why am I a racist if I want people to be here legally? I saw a photo of someone holding a sign asking "Is it a crime to seek a better life for my family?" Well, yes, if you break the law to do it. A bank robber or a con artist might just as well hold up the same sign. I'm sure there are many who feel justified in breaking all kinds of laws to seek better lives -- does that make it okay? We should NOT be talking about immigration, we should be talking about the law. The prisons are full of people who break laws they feel are unfair or inconvenient. If enough of them complain, will it be okay? Do we only obey the "good laws?" Where does it stop, or does it?

June 22 2010 at 10:40 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
spongeworthy06

We have a "bleeding heart" lawyer for president whos "heart" only bleeds for people that can put him in power.

June 22 2010 at 3:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

The country of Mexico has now filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona. The absolute gall. People should boycott the country of Mexico see how they feel about those cookies. Their president stood up in the congress and called the American people racist while the left stood up and cheered him. Who the heck is running this country Americans or foreigners???

June 22 2010 at 2:39 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

"Illegal immigrant" is not a race...

June 22 2010 at 10:36 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
ettu

The Obama administration has suspended all work on building a wall along our southern border. In the area where the wall was built, the residents report that the wall works. Napolitano and Obama says it does not work, and we cannot possibly build 800 miles of wall.

Well, has anyone ever heard of the Great Wall of China? The longest CONTINUOUS portion of wall, known as the Great Wall, was built during the Ming Dynasty.
It is reported to be 3,100 miles long.

Today, we have millions of unemployed Americans, and superior materials and technology, and our politicians tell us it is impossible to complete this wall. Why this scam being perpetrated on the American people? Why is our safety and prosperity constantly and increasingly threatened, while our Fed Gov't refuses to enforce the NOT BROKEN immigration laws. They like to say the laws are broken and we need reform, but this is simply an untrue stalling tactic. When politicians talk reform, they are talking amnesty. We tried that under Reagan, and we now have the same problem we had back then, only greater and more dangerous.

GET IT DONE, DC. WE DO NOT BUY YOUR STORIES ANY LONGER.

June 21 2010 at 8:20 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Thomas

PRESIDENT OBAMA,
WE DO NOT WANT AMNESTY FOR ILLEGAL ALIENS, WE WANT OUR BORDERS SEALED AND WE WANT OUR LAWS ENFORCED. JUST DO YOUR JOB AND PROTECT THE LEGAL AMERICAN CITIZENS IN THIS COUNTRY. YOU ARE BREAKING AMERICAN LAWS BY DOING ANYTHING LESS.

June 20 2010 at 1:45 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
wtolsma

Everyone can complain all they want about this law, but it is not going to change anything on how the illeagals come over here. They will still come in record numbers, all this law does is give officers the right to pull someone over they suspect could be an illeagal and send them back to Mexico. If you are Mexican or Hispanic and leagal citizen of US, you could be stopped and asked to prove your citizenship, and who carries their birth cerificate with them? This law is harassment in the highest degree if you do not have any hispanic origin in you and you get pulled over for this reason. The law is stupid and does nothing to curb illeagals. Poiticians in Arizona are just looking for a way to get elected or reelected. Just like they use to do on the abortion issures. I guess some people are to dumb to recognize this.

June 19 2010 at 8:06 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wtolsma's comment
ettu

No one agrees with your analysis. It is an old, worn out, proven false, retort. I am requird to provide ID every single time I am stopped by the police, whether in my vehicle, or in ANY OTHER SITUATION. If I am in my vehicle, I am also required to provide my current registration and proof of insurance. PLEASE, let's get passed the flimsy "profiling" comments, and focus on the real issue, which is the wellbeing of the American people that is being endangered by the hordes coming illegally over our porous borders.

July 01 2010 at 11:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gunrunr55

i have no problem with mexicans that come to this land legaly i do have a problem with those that think that we should just let them walk in and pay for them to live here

June 18 2010 at 2:29 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
brianjconway

The Arizona bill is more liberal than the federal law that has been on the books for decades, although largely ignored by the federal government for the last thiry or more years. The federal law allows border agents to question suspected illegals on sight, probable cause not needed. Arizona, as we know, requires that the suspects have been detained for an unrelated reason before a law enforcement officer can make inquiry as to thier legal status.
Article IV, sec. 4 of the United States Constitution, requires the federal government to guarantee a republican form of government to the states, and to protect the states against invasion, and upon application of the states, to protect them against domestic violence. American ranchers and farmers are being murdered in thier fields, border agents are being shot, and assaulted in alarming numbers. Crime by illegals is rampant in our streets. Our schools, hospitals, jails and social institutions are overwhelmed. If that is not an invasion, what is? Our federal government, has steadfastly refused to enforce the law. There is nothing in the constitution that strips the states of the right to defend them selves. If the federal government woulld do it's job, Arizona would not have to intervene.
Obama should not try to establish linkage between immigration reform and securing our borders. Secure the border, period. Immigration quotas are an entirely seperate matter

Brian Conway
Valatie, N. Y.

June 17 2010 at 11:34 AM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply

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