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Arizona's Alarm Bell for Immigration Reform

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
April 26, 2010

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The only good thing about SB 1070, signed Saturday night by Republican Governor Jan Brewer, is that it may finally wake up the whole country to the consequences of the current approach to illegal immigration, in which ever tougher border enforcement is seen as the only solution to the problem. That approach is gravely flawed. Instead, enforcement without a broader vision of reform that would include new legal opportunities to immigrate and a sensible program of earned legalization for some already in the country will leave the United States, and the state of Arizona, less secure.

The new Arizona law essentially gives the police unfettered powers to demand that anyone, any time, and anywhere must be ready to produce documents proving they are legally resident in the United States. That is an almost unimaginably un-American expansion of police authority, yet it is the logical end result of a policy that relies solely on enforcement.

How could the political leadership of Arizona--including the one-time champion of immigration reform, Senator John McCain--have arrived at a place where this law was seen as a good idea? The answer is that, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the country, it has become fixated on the idea that enforcement alone can solve the state's problems with illegal immigration. Yet Arizona itself has been a victim of that approach.

To a greater extent than anywhere else in the country, [Arizona's leadership]has become fixated on the idea that enforcement alone can solve the state's problems with illegal immigration. Yet Arizona itself has been a victim of that approach.

For much of the 1990s, while anger simmered in Texas and California voters passed Proposition 187 to deny health and education benefits to illegal immigrants and their children, Arizona was largely indifferent. It is easy to see why. In 1992, only about 8 percent of all illegal border crossers were apprehended in Arizona. The long stretches of uninhabited desert discouraged all but the most determined crossers. California, in comparison, where crossing was relatively easy, had more than half of all the illegal traffic, nearly 600,000 apprehensions.

In response to the growing anger in California, the Clinton administration in 1994 launched Operation Gatekeeper, which involved building fences and beefing up the Border Patrol, and succeeded in shutting off many of the California routes. As a result, the border crossers simply moved to the east. By 2000, Arizona was getting almost 45 percent of the illegal crossings--more than 700,000 apprehensions--while California had fallen to less than 25 per cent.

The success in California had two big consequences for Arizona. First, it made Arizona the nation's Ground Zero in the fight over illegal immigration, as evidenced by the emergence there of the "Minutemen" and publicity-seeking local cops like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country. Second, by forcing illegal migrants to seek routes through the desert, it spawned human smuggling gangs that could charge several thousand dollars to see their clients safely (sometimes) to the other side, creating an organized crime problem where none had existed. The horrific murder last month of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz appears to have been carried out by a smuggler who had brought either illegal drugs or illegal migrants in from Mexico.

The unsurprising response was that Arizonans demanded, and got, California-style enforcement. Much of the Arizona-Mexico border is now protected by fences. Over the past five years, the total number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000, with about 4,000 of those stationed in Arizona. Along with the weak economy, which has reduced the attractiveness of the United States, border enforcement has been successful, in Arizona and elsewhere, in bringing the number of illegal border crossers down to the lowest levels since the early 1970s. In 2008, the most recent year for which breakdowns are available, the number of apprehensions in Arizona had fallen to about 350,000, which was more than half of the southwest border total but still a significant drop over the past decade.

Yet all that enforcement has just left the state feeling less secure. Will the new law change that? It will definitely make daily life more uncomfortable for any immigrant--legal or not--currently living in Arizona. And the uncertainty about what constitutes acceptable proof of U.S. residence may make the 70 percent of Americans who don't have a passport reluctant to visit, hurting the state's tourist economy. But it will have little or no effect on the number of illegal border crossers, who are drawn by the work opportunities available in the whole of the United States, not just in Arizona.

What is needed instead, as President Barack Obama laid out on Friday, is a comprehensive approach that includes reforms to the legal immigration system, a broader enforcement strategy focused on the workplace, and smarter enforcement at the border.

The challenge for U.S. policy is to realign the incentives so that the legal opportunities for working in the United States become more attractive and the illegal ones less so.

If there is anything known for certain after the long U.S. experience with illegal immigration, it is that illegal immigrants--like most legal immigrants--come to this country hoping to find better jobs and better pay. The challenge for U.S. policy is to realign the incentives so that the legal opportunities for working in the United States become more attractive and the illegal ones less so. That means offering new legal work visas for unskilled and skilled workers, making it easier for employers to verify that their workforce is authorized, and stepping up penalties on employers who refuse to comply. At the border, it means closer cooperation between U.S. and Mexican officials to crack down on the smuggling operations, an initiative that is showing encouraging signs of progress. And finally Congress should approve an earned legalization program that would allow many of those already living and working here to earn the right to remain in the United States, which would offer a chance to move forward with a clean slate.

Obama's statement that the Arizona law is a consequence of the federal government's failure to act is only half true. The federal government has acted on border enforcement. There is no other agency that has seen the same explosive growth as the Border Patrol over the past two decades. Yet by failing to act on the rest of the immigration reform agenda, Washington has failed to bring the people of Arizona the greater security they are right to demand.

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