Arizona’s anti-immigration** law has provoked a torrent of outrage across the nation. Some of the outrage is genuine horror at a law that appears to reflect some of the worst racial stereotypes about Hispanic immigrants. Some of the outrage is, of course, manufactured — a product of activists and politicians using the law as an opportunity to pander. Some states and localities have used the opportunity to impose “boycotts” of questionable legal and practical merit, but unquestionable usefulness as political posturing.
But very little attention has been paid until now to the practical consequences of the law. Getting past all the election-year posing, supporters of the Arizona law say that they are only trying to help law enforcement address problems of violent crime that (supposedly) are disproportionately linked to illegal immigration. But the way this law will work on the ground is to obstruct law enforcement far more than it helps:
The new Arizona law will intimidate crime victims and witnesses who are illegal immigrants and divert police from investigating more serious crimes, chiefs from Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia said.
Supporters of the law point out that illegal immigration is a crime. Ok, fair enough. But how serious of a crime is it? Does anyone die or get injured from a poor guy crossing a border looking for work picking tomatoes? Of course not. Yes, some illegal immigrants are criminals or drug runners or human traffickers, but so are a lot of citizens and legal residents. There is no credible evidence I am aware of to support the anti-immigration** activists’ claim that illegal immigration is uniquely linked to any violent crime. Yet, the effect of the Arizona law is to require police to set aside their work on murders, rapes, and robberies whenever they believe they may have just run into an illegal immigrant and focus instead on confirming or disproving that suspicion.
More broadly, the effect of the law is going to be making immigrants generally try to avoid the police as much as possible. Because they believe that any contact with the police might result in a demand for papers and the potential for deportation, immigrants — illegal and legal — will prefer not to deal with the police at all. That means they won’t want to report crimes, let alone serve as witnesses. Now, it is fair to lay a portion of the blame on those who have exaggerated and distorted what is in the law in the first place, and have thus raised fears higher than they need to be. But even fairly read and interpreted, the law does make police more of a threat and less of an ally even to otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants.
And that’s just a foolish indulgence in anti-immigrant** resentment.
** I use the term “anti-immigrant” knowing full well that some will claim that they aren’t anti-immigrant, only anti-illegal. But I find it impossible to accept those claims in light of the transparent and very frequent use of racial and cultural stereotypes by the initiators and supporters of the law. I don’t like the way that charges of racism are applied far too frequently in today’s polarized and hostile political rhetoric. But it is hard to explain their willingness to alienate an entire demographic in an election year except that it is motivated by a commitment to something more primitive than electoral calculation — and racism provides the best available explanation for that behavior. And when it comes to how some on the far-right talk and act about immigrants, it is totally fair to condemn their words as “anti-immigrant” and racist.