Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thoughts from Afar

Arizona's new immigration legislation had drawn national and even international press. The bill has garnered widespread criticism, including from the Catholic bishops of Arizona. Though I no longer live there, my home state has a particular interest to me. And it seems to me that while the bill has a number problematic elements, some of which are talked about more than others, many of the criticisms which have been leveled do not hold water or are less important than is usually suggested.

Dubious Criticisms

First, let us consider the claim that the bill, which gives local law enforcement the power to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand identification, will not be effective. Of all the charges against the bill, this seems least plausible. While some illegal immigrants will doubtless say, many will judge that the real possibility of fines or jail time is too much of a risk to bear. Reports are already circulating of such immigrants leaving for Mexico or other states.

Some have argued that the bill will open the door to rampant discrimination against the state's considerable Hispanic community, both legal and illegal. While this is quite possible, it strikes me as a bit of a red herring. I once heard a police officer explain that the average driver could be pulled over at any given time for three different violations. Racist law enforcement personnel already have opportunities to make life difficult for non-whites by hitting them with petty crimes and misdemeanors that usually go unenforced. But, by and large, such racist and unequal enforcement is not currently a problem: our law enforcement personnel are trained to high standards of professionalism, the courts are sensitive to charges of racism and the media quickly reports on such matters. Would the new law create new opportunities for racist misconduct? Yes. But we should not discount all the countervailing forces which currently exist and will continue to.

Another criticism raised is that the new law would take energy and resources away from law enforcement's more legitimate work elsewhere. There are two answers to this. First, the bill's supporters, including its sponsor, Russell Pearce, argue that the new law will actually free up law enforcement personnel by reducing illegal traffic at the border, leaving more officers free to operate elsewhere. Even if this does not pan out, I question the claim that this new law will draw law enforcement away from more serious crimes. Every police force has to prioritize its resources. Have you ever seen someone speeding in your neighborhood? Of course. Why? Because the police have decided that, given their limited budget, having an officer sit on your corner with a radar gun 24-7 is not the best use of their resources. There are other neighborhoods and more important crimes that occupy most of their attention. This law would add one more concern to law enforcement's list, but it would not have to be their top priority. Indeed, I doubt it would significantly alter the hierarchy of considerations.

Some people have argued that the bill will have a negative effect on Arizona's economy. This comes in two forms. First is the contention that illegal immigrants provide useful labor, stimulate the consumer economy and - even if they do not pay income tax - contribute to the tax base through sales taxes. There is some validity to these claims, but at stake here is a deeper question, namely, whether immigration limitations are beneficial or if we should simply have open borders. That is a very important question, but not the question on the table. With regard to the proposed bill, we are asking how current immigration laws should be enforced (particularly in the light of the federal government's limited success in doing so). Leaving aside the deeper question, there are some qualifying comments which can be made about this first economic argument. While illegal immigrants buy a variety of consumer products in the States, stimulating the local economy, they also send a considerable portion of their income back home. Thus, the stimulus value of one illegal immigrant is less than the corresponding value of a domestic worker who keeps the entirety of his income in the States. Moreover, while illegal immigrants do pay sales taxes, the kind of goods which they purchase - most notably food - have the lowest tax rates, so the addition to the tax base is somewhat reduced.

A second variation on the economic argument is that businesses will leave Arizona or will choose not to come in the first place. One perfectly valid reason is that they do not want their (completely legal) Hispanic employees being harassed by law enforcement. But I wonder if some companies are not also worried about the loss of cheap illegal labor. Even companies which do not employ such workers could feel the knock-on effects: Those involved in real estate may contract with construction companies which make use of illegal labor. Even high-tech companies make use of cleaning services which sometimes hire illegal immigrants. And even if a company is not contracting with someone who utilizes illegal labor, the very presence of illegals in the market increases the labor supply and depresses labor costs. Companies may be worried, and some for legitimate reasons, but I wonder if some are not also worried for selfish reasons.

Legitimate Concerns

One of the most troubling aspects of this bill is the requirement that people be able to produce identification at all times. This might seem like a minor item. Indeed, there was a time in my life when I thought it a perfectly reasonable policy. But I have since come to see that this is but one aspect of a troubling callousness toward our own liberties. In reading Brian Jenkins' The Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874, as I prepared to write a review (forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of History), I was struck by the keen sense of personal liberty present in the 19th century. Though battling terrorists, the British government could not countenance the notion of restricting gun ownership; this was, after all, a free country. The assumption was that individuals were free to live their lives as they pleased, and the state could only interfere in that for very compelling reasons. Today, even those who profess an attachment to liberty frequent assume the state will intervene in our everyday lives.

A few other aspects are worth consideration. One is the question of families: what if one parent is an illegal immigrant, the other a legal worker or citizen, and the children citizens? Should we imprison parents of young (and legal) children? Or does this cause undue harm? It seems to me that the simplest answer here would be to deport the offending parent, with the remaining parent and children having the option of staying in the States or also leaving. This is, admittedly, a difficult choice, but, I think, a fair one. The problem here is that states do not have the power to deport. So the new law would punish illegal immigrants with fines or jail time. This could pose a particular burden on children who are citizens but both of whose parents are illegal immigrants. A certain degree of leniency should be built into the law, giving judges leeway in determining sentences, and allowing them to take family circumstances into consideration. Still, the underlying problem is that the federal government, the one with the most relevant powers - those of deportation and of passing comprehensive immigration reform - has provided an inadequate response. Arizona can hardly be blamed for doing what it can.

One other concern raised has been that illegal immigrants may now increasingly become the victims of crimes because they are unwilling to call authorities for fear of being arrested themselves. This is a real problem. Faced with language barriers and short of money, illegal immigrants are already the victims of a considerable amount of crime, not least horrible abuse by "coyotes," guides who take them across the border, often forcing them to carry drugs as part of the deal. Being in the US illegally is a violation of the law and should be treated as such, but should be dealt with in a fair and legal manner; their illegal status should not make us wholly blind to the plight of illegal immigrants. That having been said, I wonder just how many fewer illegal immigrants would call authorities under then new law than currently do; many already fear law enforcement personnel. However, as with the issue of family, I would favor the inclusion of language in the new bill which might mitigate (or, at a judge's discretion, waive) punishment for illegal immigrants whose status was only discovered because they reported a crime. This is not an absurd notion, since the same concept can be found in so-called Good Samaritan laws.

The bishops complained that the bill is "mean-spirited," a charge I find particularly interesting. On the one hand, law enforcement is never going to be a very friendly or pleasant matter: it is, ultimately, the use of coercive force to uphold the law. On the other hand, I have been reading lately about Camp Hearne, in a work titled Lone Star Stalag. The camp held German POWs during World War II, and did so in a friendly and generous manner that is, frankly, shocking to the modern mindset. Reading about the humane and pleasant treatment of the prisoners, and their positive response to it, is truly uplifting. I cannot help but think that we are a lesser society for having lost that sense of generosity, even toward our enemies. But it strikes me that the present bill in question is more of a manifestation of society's mean-spiritedness, than it is a contributor to it. This spirit of vindictiveness is indeed worrisome, but we should focus on destroying it at its roots, not just its branches.

Let me be clear: I favor immigration reform. I think it should be easier, not harder, to legally come to this country, either as a permanent immigrant or as a temporary worker. What the present bill demonstrates is that the federal government has failed to provide such reform. We should not be surprised that a state like Arizona, with 460,000 illegal immigrants within its borders, would pass a bill like this. Indeed, similar measures in other states would not surprise me. Let us hope that all this furor has put a fire under Congress to take action.

H/T to my brother, Matt, with whom I disagree on some of these issues, but who keeps me informed and honest.
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