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Defending Arizona: Pundits Scramble to Justify Anti-Immigrant Law

When Arizona passed a patently unconstitutional law, SB 1070, requiring residents to prove their citizenship to any suspicious police officer, the state did not lack for defenders in the corporate press.

One of the first out of the box was George Will, who concluded his April 28 Washington Post column with this observation: Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m. Given that there are 47 million Latinos in the United States, Will's assumption that his readers will likely only know them as waiters or gardeners was rather bizarre. Perhaps the state needed another champion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (5/3/10) stepped up, criticizing those who are "impugning the motives" of what "has been denounced as a ‘Nazi' or ‘near-fascist' law, a ‘police state' intervention, an imitation of ‘apartheid,' a ‘Juan Crow' regime that only a bigot could possibly support."

Actually, Douthat argued, the Arizona law is an understandable if unfortunate response to the federal government's failure to "regain...control of its southern border. There is a widespread pretense that this has been tried and found to be impossible, when really it's been found difficult and left untried."

Douthat was vague about what he meant by "control." If he had in mind policies that would freeze or slightly reduce the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country, we already have those; the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States dropped in 2009 for the second year in a row (Population Estimates, 1/10). But Douthat was hoping to satisfy those who pushed for Arizona's law, allay their "fears of a Spanish-speaking reconquista" and make room for "a more diverse immigrant population," so clearly he had in mind something substantially more ambitious.

He proposed "reducing the supply" of undocumented workers through "enforcement measures that will inevitably be criticized as draconian." Policies that would effectively remove the bulk of an estimated 11 million people from the United States, as would seem to be required to mollify the anti-immigration movement, would not only be criticized as draconian; they would actually be draconian, involving not just the "tamper-proof Social Security card" that Douthat suggests, but internment and transport facilities on a mass scale.

Douthat's description of the economic measures necessary to secure the border, however, was illuminating: "Curbing the demand for illegal workers requires stiff workplace enforcement, stringent penalties for hiring undocumented workers, and shared sacrifice from Americans accustomed to benefiting from cheap labor." With the phrase "shared sacrifice," Douthat acknowledged, as few people on his side do, that the net effect of forcing millions of workers out of the economy would be serious hardship for those who remain.

"You can see why our leaders would rather duck the problem," Douthat wrote. Yes, you can see why politicians don't want to destroy the lives of millions of people in order to worsen the economic condition of hundreds of millions. What's still lacking is an explanation for why some folks would want to do such a thing-one that doesn't involve bigotry, that is.

Newsweek reporter Eve Conant (5/10/10) attempted to provide such a narrative, under the charming headline "Mexican Standoff": Some accuse lawmakers and the 70 percent of Arizonans who support the bill of acting like Nazis, or of turning Arizona into an apartheid state. But spend some time in Arizona, and you may come to see why so many Arizonans want this. Conant followed this with an account of a month's worth of ride-alongs with Arizona law enforcement officials, who showed her a number of ostensibly immigrant-related crimes. "It's terrifying to live next door to homes filled with human traffickers, drug smugglers, AK-47s, pit bulls, and desperate laborers stuffed 30 to a room, shoes removed to hinder escape," Conant wrote.

No doubt it is, but how many Arizonans actually do live next door to such places? There's nothing particularly remarkable about the state's crime rate; it had 483 violent crimes reported per 100,000 people in 2007, according to the Statistical Abstract, just slightly more than the national average of 467-and well below the rate of such well-known crime hubs as Delaware and Maryland, where the police are not yet mandated to demand the papers of the suspiciously foreign-seeming. And there's no reason to think that immigrants are responsible for more violent crime than their native-born counterparts (Social Science Research Council, 5/23/07).

When a state passes a law that has the effect of discriminating against an ethnic group, defending that law by recounting anecdotes about crimes committed by members of that group is a form of racism. Referring to the targeted ethnicity as "immigrants" rather than "Latinos" makes it no less racist.

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly latched on to the imaginary crime wave as a reason to support the anti-immigrant law, using his own inimitable imitation of logic (5/3/10): Arizona had to do something. In the capital city, Phoenix, crime is totally out of control. For example, last year, New York City-with six times as many residents as Phoenix-had just 16,000 more reported crimes. San Diego is the same size as Phoenix. It has 60 percent less crime. The next day, O'Reilly asserted that Phoenix is "one of the most dangerous cities in the country." In reality, out of 76 metro areas that reported crime statistics to the FBI, Phoenix came in as the 46th most dangerous city. And the city's crime rates are dropping, not rising; the Phoenix police department reports that violent crime has fallen in each of the last three years, and total crime has fallen by nearly a third since its 2002 peak.

Even if it were true that Phoenix was particularly crime-ridden, it's not clear what kind of point O'Reilly would be making about immigration; New York City has the largest foreign-born population in the nation, and San Diego County has slightly more immigrants than Phoenix's Maricopa County.

But, having settled on Arizona's "overwhelming crime problem" (O'Reilly Factor, 5/6/10) as his favored rationale, O'Reilly seemed impervious to reality. Interviewing Latina journalist Cathy Areu on his May 18 show, he challenged her: "OK, so you would just sit there and just status quo it? Status quo?" To which Areu replied: "Well, crime is down and immigration is down. So, actually, things are better."

"Crime in Arizona is up," O'Reilly insisted, counterfactually.

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