Immigration is a federal issue in the US. The state of Arizona’s effort to identify and criminalize undocumented immigrants appears to conflict with federal law

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Economics and politics of
Arizona’s immigration law

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

15 May 2010: US mayors who have reacted to Arizona’s controversial new immigration law have done so primarily on economic grounds. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in the New York Daily News that “laws that have the potential to hassle [immigrants] could prove devastating to our economy. Basic free market economics tells us we need more legal immigrants - immigrants who will start new businesses and help build the foundation for future economic growth.”

| Why Arizona? | Legal controversy | State & federal responses |

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome – one of several US mayors to impose or demand economic sanctions on Arizona -- said he would work "to develop a smart and effective boycott that sends the appropriate message to Arizona while protecting San Francisco's financial interests."

The mayors of Arizona’s two largest cities, Phil Gordon of Phoenix and Bob Walkup of Tucson have vowed to sue the state of Arizona to block the new immigration law. The law has been "economically devastating", says Gordon, pointing to cancellations of conventions, business meetings, and visits from Mexican nationals who have been warned by their government to avoid Arizona.

Why Arizona?
When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico in 1994, it began to change the lives of several million poor Mexican farmers. NAFTA allowed the US to export its government-subsidized corn to Mexico. American corn was cheaper than Mexican corn, and Mexico went from a net exporter of corn to a net importer of corn. Millions of Mexicans were thrown off their little plots of land, and low-paying jobs in US often became their best hopes for survival.

In the 1990s, the primary entry points for illegal immigrants from Mexico were not in Arizona, but the major border cities in California and Texas, especially San Diego and El Paso. Arizona, situated along the border between California and Texas, was not a frequent crossing point because of its forbiddingly-hot deserts and high mountains. In 1994, about 170,000 illegal border crossers from Mexico were detained in Arizona, compared to nearly 600,000 in California. By the end of 2006, those numbers were reversed. Arizona – with one-sixth the population of California -- was receiving three times as many illegal border crossers.

In 2006, the Bush administration began sealing off the major crossing points in California and Texas with multiple layers of fencing. Pushed out of California and Texas, people from Latin American – desperate from poverty -- began making the difficult crossing in Arizona to reunite with family in the US or to seek employment in the agricultural or hospitality industries, doing the kinds of work that no large pools of Americans are willing to do.

The strain on Arizona’s schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and other public services trying to cope with the needs of illegal immigrants and their children is costly and increasing. The recent state law is a response to the economic crisis.  

The legal controversy
While outspoken mayors have focused on the economic implications of the Arizona law, other critics argue that it is unconstitutional and will encourage racial profiling. 

Immigration is a federal issue in the United States. The state of Arizona’s effort to identify and criminalize undocumented immigrants appears to conflict with federal law and, therefore, would be unconstitutional. The Arizona law, for example, makes it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant in the state, something that federal law classifies only as a civil violation.

It also requires state law enforcement agents to question individuals about their immigration status if the officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that the individuals are undocumented. However, the law defines no basis of reasonable suspicion to stop someone and demand to see his or her documents, and an individual who cannot provide proof of legal status would be subject to arrest. In effect, the act compels law enforcement to conduct racial profiling of all people in the state, including US citizens.

The Arizona law will ultimately require all people to carry proof of their legal status at all times to avoid harassment or inappropriate detention. For example, a simple walk to the grocers without documentation by a foreign national renders that person a criminal. That same trip to the grocers by a US citizen without documentation who “looks” foreign and may even have an accent will likely result in detention, or worse. Since Arizona residents are not required to carry state-issued ID, Social Security cards, or birth certificates, they won’t necessarily be able to prove their own legality if asked to show their documents. It is not clear, for example, what would happen to a US citizen who is suspected of being foreign but can’t produce proof of citizenship or how quickly a citizen, not required to carry proof of status, could obtain proper documentation and be released from detention.

Moreover, the law permits citizens to sue any state or local agency they believe is failing to enforce the law.

State and federal responses
A recent New York Times poll found that a majority of Americans believe immigration reform is urgent. A slight majority also support the Arizona law, believing that illegal immigrants take jobs that would otherwise go to Americans and, at the same time, drive up social costs and thus taxes. While big city mayors are almost unanimous in their condemnation of the Arizona law, state legislators in at least 15 states – following public opinion -- are reportedly drafting laws similar to Arizona’s.

At the federal level, comprehensive immigration reform – a priority of President Obama during his election campaign – has been overshadowed by the recession, health care, and war. However, congressional Democrats have begun talking again about immigration reform; so far, in general contours, with few details.

One consequence of the Arizona controversy may be a convergence of economic trends and political trends regarding immigration at the local, state, and federal levels. If this happens, comprehensive national immigration reform – an elusive goal for three decades – may be within reach.

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