As events have unfolded in Arizona, transforming its image from boring border state to ground zero in the increasingly volatile debate over illegal immigration, I was reminded of a simple question posed by a journalist who watched another state transform under a wave of conservative populism: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Thomas Frank turned that question into a bestselling 2004 book about average Kansans who repeatedly voted against their own financial and political interests after ostensibly being co-opted by big moneyed political elites -- in other words, Republicans.
From my vantage point, Arizona is lately looking like the Kansas of the Southwest. The only difference is that Arizona’s myopic Republican leaders have not so much co-opted state residents as taken them hostage by passing a nasty piece of immigration legislation that is leading the state down a path of economic ruin, racial divisiveness and national ridicule.
Here’s a state where 30 percent of the population is Latino, many of them citizens who vote, and lawmakers adopt at law that is so blatantly anti-Latino that it’s almost laughable. I say “almost laughable” because the highly punitive law is far from funny. It requires local police, during the course of enforcing a law, to request proof of legal residency from anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, and to arrest those who cannot prove legal status. The law is essentially a free pass for police to employ “Living While Latino” enforcement tactics in much the same way police have long used “Driving While Black” as an excuse to apprehend, stop, question, detain and otherwise harass black motorists.
Coming from a state that fought long and hard against adopting a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., the new immigration law is not surprising. As an encore, Gov. Jan Brewer signed another measure into law this week prohibiting the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools. The motivation? A Mexican-American studies program that the state schools superintendent said promoted Latino resentment and advocated ethnic solidarity. Never mind that the both the immigration law and the ethnic studies ban were prompted in large part by the ethnic solidarity of the white Republican lawmakers who backed the laws. Latino children now have a very real reason to be resentful of a law that essentially sanctions their stigmatization. It stands to reason that this might prompt them to seek relief among their own. Consider it ethnic solidarity born of exclusion.
So what’s the matter with Arizona? Is there something in the water supply or are the state’s Republican leaders really that tone deaf or willfully ignorant to the political realties they will soon be facing by messing with the fastest growing voting bloc in the country? Latino voters are expected to play a key role in the outcome of 42 battleground House, Senate and gubernatorial races this November. John McCain and Jan Brewer should be worried and, by extension, so should the national Republican Party, which is going through pains to avoid basking in Arizona’s light.
This would explain why the Republican National Committee is steering clear of the state for its 2012 convention. According to The Washington Post, representatives of the National Council of La Raza, a pro-immigrant, pro-Latino bête noir to anti-immigrants groups, privately asked the RNC not to hold the convention in Phoenix. That the RNC actually complied, opting instead for Tampa where some 22 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, speaks volumes.
Hispanic civil rights and immigrant advocacy organizations are urging other groups to honor an economic boycott of the state. In the process, the advocacy groups are putting Arizona lawmakers on the defensive for actions that are deeply offensive to people of color, including black immigrants and African-Americans who know all too well what it’s like to have government actions targeted at them. That’s why Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black college fraternity in the country – Martin Luther King Jr. was a member – was among the first organizations to pull its scheduled annual convention out of Arizona.
Brewer et al. can insist all they want that the new law is a reasonable immigration enforcement tool but that won’t stop it from being widely viewed as an unreasonable racial profiling instrument. How else to explain the slew of cancellations – 23 and counting – of meetings and conferences that were scheduled to be held in Arizona? The national boycott is clearly gaining momentum. The state's hotel and lodging association says the cancellations translate to between $6 and $10 million in lost business so far. Arizona is very likely going to have to keep tightening its belt. The list of those joining the boycott grows daily as does the number of cities that have banned official travel and business dealings with the state. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council joined the fray, following the lead of San Diego, Oakland, Boston and St. Paul. Pressure is also building for Major League Baseball to move this year’s All Star Game out of the state.
In the future when long-term damage assessments are done about the affects of the state immigration law, no one will be wondering what went wrong in Arizona because they won’t have to look far for answers. They can simply look to the state’s Republican’s leadership which has no one to blame but itself.