Many proponents of Arizona's harsh new immigration law cite rampant crime and violence at the border as the impetus behind the push to turn police into immigration agents and undocumented workers into criminals.
But immigrants are less likely than native-born residents to commit crimes, and presence in the US without papers is a civil, not a criminal offense. As the Immigration Policy Center points out, Arizona's crime rates have been steadily falling in recent years despite increased flows of undocumented immigration. It is unclear how directing police officers, under threat of lawsuit, to target these residents will make Arizona safer. In fact, law enforcement officials from across the country warn that SB 1070 may have the opposite effect, and compromise public safety by diverting scarce police resources away from targeting criminals, regardless of citizenship status.
Despite what its supporters may have you think, the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act" addresses public safety in name only. A look at the bill's text reveals another objective entirely, one that has little to do with public safety.
SB1070's stated purpose is to "make attrition through enforcement the public policy" of all government agencies. For those who closely follow immigration issues, this phrase is all too familiar. Attrition through enforcement is the brainchild of immigration restrictionist groups NumbersUSA, FAIR and the Center for Immigration Studies. Their strategy, in short, is to make life so unbearable for immigrants in this country that they voluntarily decide to return home. And thanks to Governor Jan Brewer, this strategy has been written into Arizona law.
The bill further aims to "discourage and deter... the economic activity of persons unlawfully present in the United States." To accomplish this goal, the bill cracks down on day laborer hiring and makes employing undocumented workers a state offense. It's hard to believe that a public policy explicitly intended to depress economic activity would pass in 2010; it's harder to believe that such a policy would go forward in Arizona, where Governor Brewer is grappling with the largest budget shortfall in state history. An endorsement of the "attrition through enforcement" strategy suggests that Arizona's lawmakers are willing drive away the estimated 460,000 undocumented immigrants working, supporting local businesses and paying taxes within its borders.
But supporters of this strategy ignore the fact that this policy doesn't only affect undocumented immigrants, nor will it only discourage their economic "activities." After all, the bill requires all non-citizens to carry their immigration papers, and makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly transport or harbor undocumented immigrants. This will almost certainly push many mixed status families and other legal residents out of the state. For evidence of this, Arizona should learn from the example of Oklahoma. In the aftermath of a similar law passed in 2007, Oklahoma state Senator Harry Coates said, "You really have to work hard at it to destroy our state's economy, but we found a way. We ran off the workforce."
Can Arizona afford to lose the significant contributions of immigrants and their families? A recent University of Arizona study found that Arizona's immigrant workers paid an estimated $2.4 billion in state taxes, and accounted for $44 billion in economic output that created 400,000 full-time jobs. And experts say that losing hundreds of thousands of these workers may compromise the state's long-term economic recovery. In the interest of leading the nation sharply to the right on immigration policy, it seems that Arizona's lawmakers are willing to take the risk.