Razing Arizona27 Jul 2010
Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes; you just might get it. This old saw is especially germane to Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the ill-starred attempt to regulate immigration on the state level, notwithstanding the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over such matters. Arizonans who hoped S.B. 1070 would clear their state of illegal immigrants may get some of what they wished for – along with unintended consequences they may not have reckoned with. According to the Los Angeles Times, many Latino immigrants are not sticking around to see what happens when Arizona implements its law against illegal immigrants on July 29th, assuming the courts do not prevent the law from taking effect. Many appear to be leaving the state, and it remains to be seen when – even whether – they will return. (See Fleeing Phoenix Out of Fear of Immigration Law, by Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times, 22.Jul.2010.) One can’t help but wonder just how much of the tax base will go with them.
In some immigrant neighborhoods, business is poised to fall off a cliff. As the LA Times reports, S.B. 1070 may be the final push over the brink for businesses already struggling in the slow and uneven economic recovery: “For the last 20 years, Arizona has been one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. It depends on an expanding population to power its economy, which relies heavily on the construction of new houses.” If the low-paid immigrant workforce packs up and leaves Arizona, the construction industry is unlikely to feel the pinch, at least for now; but what happens when the recovery gains momentum, and what happens even before that, when large numbers of taxpaying Latino consumers leave the state and take their labor – and their paychecks – elsewhere?
This is no idle concern. Judith Gans of the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy told the LA Times that, on balance, immigrants still help the economy, even in those cases where a family uses more government services than they pay in taxes. “In a 2008 study, [Gans] found that Arizona immigrants contributed $29 billion annually to the state economy, representing about 8% of its activity.” The LA Times noted further that, “When immigrants leave, Gans said, ‘stores experience dramatic drops in sales. Apartment owners who rent to immigrants have high vacancy rates and risk losing their buildings. Legal workers or renters or consumers don’t generally step in quickly enough to prevent these businesses from experiencing real additional hardship.'”
At worst, S.B. 1070 is self-destructive; at best, it is counterproductive to Arizona’s economic recovery. Aside from all the bad publicity S.B. 1070 brings with it – no small factor in a state that depends so heavily on tourist revenues and goodwill – the economic collateral damage will be substantial if Latinos, whether legal or illegal immigrants or American-born, take the hint that they are unwelcome and move to other states.
Clearly, something other than economic rationality is driving this. What is it? Some signs point to racism and xenophobia, possibly rooted in long-term demographic changes. (See Neo-Nazi Groups Take Up Arms in Arizona to Combat Illegal Immigration, by Joe Tacopino, NY Daily News, 18.Jul.2010, and Hating Hispanics: Has Arizona Ignited Firestorm After Decade of Simmering Tension, by Sarah Netter, ABC News, 19.Jul.2010.) A recent article on Politico.com, though, posits another reason: that controversy over immigration makes good box office for politicians on both sides of the aisle, to the point that neither side has an incentive to actually resolve our immigration problems. (See Pols Profit from Immigration Impasse, by Scott Wong, Politico.com, 26.Jul.2010.) There is some truth in this; had Congress enacted meaningful immigration reform, proponents of S.B. 1070 would not have been able to mask the ugly motivations behind their legislation with claims that federal inaction required this particularly odious form of state action. Still, the blame for this legislative tornado must rest, if anywhere, with the governor and state legislature in Arizona.
For Arizona’s sake – and for that of the country – let us hope that S.B. 1070 gets stopped in its tracks at the courthouse door, before it ever has a chance to take effect. Let us hope that in the future, serious problems – in our immigration system or elsewhere – will be met with serious-minded and constructive legislative solutions, not scape-goating, fear-mongering, and the politics of division.