The Psychological Ramifications of Arizona's Myopic Immigration Lens: Scent of an Old South Africa

05/18/2010 08:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Imagine walking down the street to get some bread and milk at the corner store. Now imagine doing this, knowing that someone is watching you specifically, and that a uniformed policeman may approach you at any time and ask you to prove that you are legally present -- not when you are on vacation, but when you are living in a place whose economy you are contributing to in a vital way. Then imagine that this happens not just once, but three or four times a month. And imagine that while you are on your stroll in a local park or at a public pool in the summer, a uniformed policeman comes up again to make sure that you are legal. If you are illegally here, then that search will lead to the just ramifications for breaking the law. But if you are legally here, that search will lead to repetitive intrusions, heightened anxiety, feelings of not belonging, and a disruption to a sense of your own power with an implied sense of differentiation from the rest of the population around you. The law of Arizona accurately addresses the problems of illegal immigration but does so at the expense of legal immigrants like a live vaccine that protects society while infecting others at risk.

Not so long ago, South Africa's apartheid system had a "dom pass" system that was designed to segregate the population and severely limit the movement of the non-white population. Blacks were required to carry pass books with them whenever they were outside their compounds or designated areas. This effectively served to regulate movement of black Africans in urban areas. Anyone found without a pass would be arrested and detained immediately. And now, decades later, the country and its people are still grappling with the mindboggling psychology of this subtle domination. Evidence of this has been seen in many other settings as well -- like when a law was passed in 1941 when the Nazi's insisted that Jews had to obtain a permit to travel or move. These restrictions may serve the agenda of a group of people, and often, it is perceived as a very important agenda, except that it is executed at the expense of other people. For Arizona's new law, the people who truly pay for this are the legal immigrants.

So why then, do I think that the Arizona policy is myopic? I do think that it addresses problems with illegal immigration, but the psychological vulnerabilities and civil disturbance that it creates in the longer term are ignored. For example, young people with a history of racial discrimination have been shown to experience more emotional distress [1], and immigration is already associated with diminution in social mobility [2], depression [3], anxiety [4], alienation [5], post-traumatic stress disorder [6] and even psychosis [7]. Notwithstanding these stressors, thought to be in large part correlated with the challenges of dislocation, the immigrant population is often very resilient. Nevertheless, the impact of adding the substantial burden of intrusive re-checking on the legal immigrants of Arizona cannot be understated. Consider that almost 30 percent of the more than 68 million young adults aged 18 to 34 in the United States today are either foreign born or of foreign parentage [2]. Any policy regarding immigration reform is likely to impact a substantial proportion of the US population. I understand that Arizona does not represent all of the US, but the seed thought there is impactful.

Psychologically, this seems myopic as every small policy that "inadvertently" marginalizes a legal immigrant group will add up to affect a large percentage of the population. This is not just theoretical. It is real. These kinds of policies breed hatred and social divides at a time when America needs its people to be joined in their intentions and power. There is no doubt that immigrants come to America because it holds so much promise for better living and an opportunity to "make it" and survive. And because it is a very beautiful country that has taken strong positions against policies that divide people on the basis of color, creed or caste. When immigration policies start to verge on subtle minimizing (a term called microaggression [8] has been used), the country really needs to take a deeper look at what we want for our own power. I am all for addressing illegal immigration, but I have often found that legal immigrants are impacted much more by myopic control measures than even they would like people to know.

My questions for Arizona would be:

(1) Has anyone considered the impact of microaggressions on legal immigrants?

(2) Has anyone considered the risks of this policy to our society and the country as a whole?

(3) Has anyone addressed his or her own frustrations with illegal immigrants being inappropriately transferred to legal immigrants?

(4) Has anyone addressed how they will deal with the psychological impact of this policy in legal immigrants?

(5) Does anyone care when a myopic policy addresses a problem but creates a longer-term problem in the fabric of that society?

I don't think that we know the answers to these problems. But it is clear from how violence has spread in the world, that tighter and tighter control does not stop hatred and threat from growing. Perhaps more psychologically nuanced measures are necessary for our transformation into a safer society for all.