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Arizona on my Mind: The Immigration Law and Homelessness

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Late last week, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty joined other civil and human rights organizations in the Arizona boycott, pulling out of a major public interest law conference planned in Phoenix this week for which we had organized a panel.

The boycott was precipitated by Arizona's adoption of a draconian new law that imposes harsh requirements on immigrants and gives police authority to stop and demand documents from anyone they have reason to suspect might be an illegal immigrant. Groups representing immigrants' rights, like the National Council of La Raza, are leading the boycott. But the issues at stake go beyond immigration, and the links to homelessness and poverty are pretty direct.

The law imposes requirements that are difficult or even impossible for many poor people to meet--regardless of immigration status--and grants police authority over complex social and political issues. It's a quick political "fix" that does more to appease perceived voter anxiety than to resolve real issues. As such, it risks further criminalizing poverty, and in particular, the extreme form of poverty that is homelessness.

This is especially true now, as homelessness rises dramatically across the country, driven by the foreclosure crisis and the recession. The population is increasingly diverse: it includes tenants evicted from their rental homes due to foreclosure on the owners (despite new federal legal protections that are still often violated) as well as homeowners; women (primarily) fleeing domestic violence, now on the rise, with nowhere to go; unemployed workers who have exhausted any savings they might have had, as well as the help of their family and friends. It's a population that consists disproportionately of people of color.

As such, people who are homeless will almost certainly be included in the racial profiling that La Raza and others fear will result from the new law. Worse, people who have lost their homes will be much less able to produce the documents that the new law now allows police to require. Think about how people become homeless: An eviction with belongings on a sidewalk; a desperate, panicked decision to flee violence; a move out of a home to double up with family and friends.

Think about how people live once they are homeless: Moving from sofa to sofa, from shelter to shelter, sometimes from encampment to encampment. Searching on a daily basis for a place to stay, to eat, to use a bathroom? How easy is it to maintain a hold on crucial documents?

Sometimes, belongings--including identification documents--are lost when police conduct "sweeps" of homeless peoples' makeshift encampments in public places, enforcing laws that make it a crime to sleep, sit or even eat in public places, even when there is no other place to perform these essential life activities.

Once lost, some documents can be literally impossible to replace. Without a government identification document, for example, it can be impossible to gain entry to a government building--and to apply to replace the missing document.

Of course, sometimes immigrants are here illegally and really do not have documents.
I'm not arguing that illegal immigration does not raise legitimate policy concerns - these can and should be addressed. But simply making failure to carry immigration papers a crime, and deploying the police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally does much more than that. While I'm no immigration expert, I doubt it will do much to stop the flow of largely desperately poor people leaving their countries in hope of a chance at economic survival.

Arizona's law is about much more than immigrants' rights. It's about basic equity and fairness. It's about how law is made and whose interests are reflected and represented. And it's about a downward spiral that, increasingly, is pushing the already poor, disfavored and excluded even further to the margins of American society. It's a spiral that, quite literally, threatens to further beat down those who are already marginalized--whether because of poverty, immigrant status, color, or all of the above. Ultimately, it threatens their ability even to exist in American society today.

The theme of the conference that we pulled out of last week is "Equal Justice." The Arizona law is anything but.