by Melissa Hahn
When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law, she thrust the state into the national spotlight as a catalyst for immigration reform. As the reverberations pulse across the country, the law is best understood in the context of Arizona’s unique circumstances.
Locally, immigration has been a hot-button issue since the 1990s, when increased border security in California and Texas transformed Arizona into the nation’s illegal immigration artery. Across nearly two decades, the number of estimated illegal residents in Arizona jumped 500% as prosperity north of the border was matched by instability to the south. Census data shows that between 1990 and 2009, Hispanics rose from 16% to 30% of the population- double the national average.
This trend was matched by an even more dramatic domestic migration to Arizona. Following decades of breakneck growth, the state’s population rank jumped from twenty-ninth in 1980 to fourteenth today. From 2000 to 2007, the state grew 28.3% compared to 9.1% nationally.
As a result of increased migration, Arizona is nearly unrecognizable from a half-century ago. The recent demographic upheaval has created strong cleavages and, despite the high rate of immigration from Mexico, in 2009 Arizona had a higher than average White population of 86.5%. Of that population, 58.4% reported being White and non-Hispanic. The White non-Hispanic interaction with Hispanic and immigrant culture is generally remote and superficial. Meanwhile, many legal citizens of Hispanic ancestry live their lives in the majority White milieu and share its characteristics.
Illegal immigrants’ lives play out in a different reality, dictated by “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Citizens don’t mind paying the lower rates for undocumented workers and never ask to see their landscaper’s papers, yet consistently press for punitive measures. Since undocumented immigrants cannot fight, their only choice is to move on when times get tough. As a response to the recession and a strict employer sanctions law, illegal immigration since 2007 has plummeted by nearly 60%.
Since illegal immigration is waning, Franklin Zyriek criticizes the law as a red herring. Referring to the 30% budget deficit and 9.5% official unemployment, he calls the law a distraction from the state’s more fundamental problems.
Others point to the pressures of a hotly contested election year. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the high-profile elected figure whose raison d’être is the deportation of suspected illegal immigrants, upped the ante by toying with a run for governor. Posing with Sarah Palin on her campaign website, Governor Brewer is actively seeking votes from the same angry, White Republicans. Since over 70% reportedly favor the law, it was a political no-brainer.
A legislative insider speaking confidentially reports that “[Governor] Brewer saw a huge boost in her ratings after she signed the bill.” While provoking dissent from some local leaders like the mayor and police chief of Phoenix, she received official endorsement from the Arizona Police Association, which praised her courage in defending the state’s citizens.
One impressed citizen is Denise Stewart, who is relieved that “that there is finally a true stance being taken on this entire situation.” Citing rising domestic poverty, she can’t abide the estimated 450,000 illegal immigrants competing for state resources and scarce jobs and is exasperated by the 14th Amendment, which declares all persons born here to be US citizens.
Stewart also fears for her family’s safety with local news reports of high-speed police chases after coyote vans; raids on suburban drop houses; and Phoenix’s ignominious status as the country’s kidnapping capital. Referencing the recent cartel murder of a rancher near the border, she argues, “You can’t say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time – he was on his own land. Americans have the right to have the ‘American Dream’[ too].” However, while Arizona's overall crime has risen steadily with its population increase, the Bureau of Justice reports that the crime rate has decreased since 1993.
Barbara Hughes is aggravated by the increasing prevalence of Spanish, which she finds “ridiculously accommodating.” A naturalized citizen who immigrated legally as a child with her German mother and Polish father, she recalls the necessity of attending “classes to learn the laws and the history, and most importantly the English language.”
Reflecting on the time and expense involved in her family’s naturalization process, she resents illegal immigrants as scofflaws demanding special treatment. “I believe that [everyone] should have to apply [for citizenship]. If you cannot follow the rules…you should not be here.”
Erena Baybik, Managing Partner at Baybik Law Group, has represented hundreds of immigrant clients. While no two cases are alike, she says that obtaining a work visa as a Mexican national is nearly impossible. “If the job doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, [it] is considered ‘unskilled’ and employers have to prove that nobody in the US can do [it]. Well, most of the jobs that immigrants do – restaurant work, landscaping, dry-cleaning – don’t require a bachelor’s degree.”
Since obtaining a work visa is nearly impossible, many Mexican nationals enter on a visitor’s visa and “overstay” permanently, a phenomenon making the US Consulate suspicious of all applicants. “If you are poor and have family living in the United States, they assume that you are going to break the visa requirements.” She adds that since sole discretion over applications lies with the consulate employee working that day, the process is unpredictable and demoralizing.
Decrying the criminalization of those seeking better lives, Deborah Goodman argues that “there must be a way for us to develop a system that would allow people to immigrate to this country without having to climb a fence, hide in the back of a pickup, or die trying to cross a border.”
Reflecting on the nation’s immigrant history, Goodman asks, “are we saying that the people wanting to enter the US from Mexico are not as hardworking as those who entered through Ellis Island?”
Many opposing the law are concerned that distinguishing between two million Hispanic citizens and the half-million illegal residents is easier said than done. In March, an American citizen was detained during a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office raid. Shortly thereafter, a friend joked darkly that her half-Hispanic twenty-something son shouldn’t do yard work out front anymore, lest he be mistaken for an illegal immigrant landscaper.
Others worry the law will undermine local law enforcement’s pain-staking bridge-building with illegal immigrant neighbors while diverting resources away from traditional community policing.
Most broadly worrisome is the economic fallout. An already weak real estate sector may further deflate with the immigrant exodus, and the entertainment industry is taking a hit as performers announce boycotts. Most vulnerable is the state’s tourism industry – a key economic driver grossing 18.5 billion in 2008. Facing losses already totaling $90 million, Governor Brewer has established a task force dedicated to correcting the “mistruths” about Arizona’s controversial new law.
Mistruths or not, Arizona’s image is now intimately linked to this law, as is its future. Since illegal immigration is widely blamed for all of the state’s problems, there is a sense of vindication by the majority pleased with this bill. Yet whether the law results in a better Arizona – and whether it provides a practicable solution to the nation’s immigration crisis- remains to be seen.
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children's literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and studied at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She was previously an associate analyst at the Power and Interest Report and an editorial intern at The WIP. She currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine. A photojournalist and artist, Melissa dreams of helping Americans overcome their myopic view of the world.