05/17/2010 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

SB1070 and the Immigration Debate

President Obama promised he still wants to get it done...

Activists started dark murmurings about November and the Latino vote... And the clock continued to run on this session of Congress, each new day slimming the chances a massive immigration reform could be passed before the midterm elections.

Then, Arizona threw a smoke bomb into the middle of the proceedings, bringing heat and obscuring the future of the debate. SB1070 brings local officers into the field of federal immigration enforcement. Officers can check the immigration status of the people they come across in the course of police work.
It certainly got people's attention.

Sympathetic state legislators in at least ten other states are looking at getting similar laws passed. Activists who want to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship were furious and promised to kick their efforts into high gear as well. The new Arizona has energized the combatants in one of the longest-running and most contentious issues in the culture wars, and... so what?

Maybe nothing. SB1070 refocuses attention on the bubbling-under immigration debate, but it certainly doesn't change any minds. Those who were hostile to the idea of a path to citizenship for the millions living in the country illegally, still are. Those who would make it easier for those millions to gain legal status, still favor it. SB1070 may be an interesting new ingredient in the bubbling stew of immigration debate... but is it anything more than that?

This week Destination Casa Blanca welcomed four guests to the desk in Washington to discuss the legal, and political landscape that faces comprehensive immigration reform. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who has spent his 17 years on the Hill becoming an acknowledged expert in immigration law.

In the early years of his time as a congressman, he spearheaded efforts to help people given amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act full US citizenship. He started English and civics classes, traveled the country urging new legal residents to naturalize and vote.

You won't be surprised to find out Rep. Gutierrez is against SB1070, and adds nothing to the current debate over immigration reform. He concedes that legislators in Arizona have a point when they say they acted because the federal government has not. But the congressman takes that point in a different direction: all the more reason, he says, to act on the new bills circulating in the House and Senate.

This edition of Destination Casa Blanca was a two-hour special, in response to the interest in this issue around the country. You can watch excerpts from the extended conversation with Rep. Gutierrez at

In the second hour of the program, we were joined by Eleanor Pelta of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Laura Vasquez of the National Council of La Raza, and Jack Martin of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. In the second hour the conversation focused more closely on SB1070, its constitutionality, and the prospects for racial profiling in Arizona under the new law.

Laura Vasquez and Eleanor Pelta both doubt the constitutionality of the law, and say its enforcement will almost certainly cause a disparate impact for Latinos in Arizona, regardless of their immigration status. Jack Martin replied that under SB1070, Arizona police officers would not be pulling Latinos off the street to check their papers. It would only be when residents of the state came into contact with law enforcement for other reasons that officers would check on legal status in the country.

It was observed that everyone in Arizona who might be suspected of being out of status would now have to carry documents all the time, just in case their presence in the country is challenged. Martin observed those fears were exaggerated, and that SB1070 doesn't really change what police are doing in many other states, where local law enforcement has been cooperating with the Obama Administration on immigration enforcement.

The debates over immigration are too often unsatisfactory, emotional, and dishonest. Dishonest because they don't force the debaters to get down to basics and say what they really mean. As long as they can get away with that, the conversation can be grounded in airy abstractions, imprecise pronouncements, and general frabba-jabba... to use the technical political science term.

Those who bring up crime in conjunction with the debate are rarely challenged by reporters who enter the encounter armed with the data that show illegal immigrants less often commit crimes that those in the general population (apart from just being here, which is a kind of existential crime, I guess). Again and again politicians slide innuendos about crime and terrorism into the conversation, though the connection with drywallers and landscapers, busboys, hairdressers and nannies is never really explained.

On the other side of the question, there is also a comfort with eliding some facts... or at least an unwillingness to confront some of the knottier challenges involved in creating a path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents. In skilled and unskilled lines of work that have gradually shifted to a reliance on immigrant labor, especially illegal immigrant labor, the prevailing wage rates have not only failed to keep up with inflation, but declined. The competition with naturalized and native-born workers has, in some jobs, started a race to the bottom that won't just stop because people are made legal. Americans may support legality... but they don't necessarily support suburban houses that cost more money or three-dollar strawberries.

Yes, legal status will give workers more bargaining power.What I would like to hear in the ongoing debate is a real-life discussion of how entire industries that have crafted their business models and profitability around low-cost labor will really be able to cope with a significant change to their labor costs.

Yup, immigrant advocates are right when they say the workers whose exploitation creates profits for businesses large and small are unfairly treated. Because of the shallowness of the ongoing battles no one has to talk about who will pay when, for example, millions more people are brought into the health care system... Hundreds of thousands qualify for Pell Grants and subsidized student loans... And the millions who pay taxes for benefits they can never collect on, like Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability, will now not only pay, but collect.

The full cost of action, and inaction, when it comes to millions of people living in the shadows, is going to have to be dealt with openly, and bluntly, by all sides of the argument, before we can arrive at some common wisdom about how to fix the problem. Even the biggest optimists are losing hope about a solution, or even a solid proposal, before the mid-term elections. After January, will a more Republican house and senate be ready to deal?

What do you think? Let us know what's on your mind. You can be sure we'll be coming back to the issue in future programs.

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