When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he vowed that if elected he would take up George Bush’s failed 2007 effort to reform the nation’s immigration policy, secure U.S. borders and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented persons who had lived in America for years. Since then, however, issues such as health care reform have pushed immigration to the back burner. But that all changed on April 23 when, with a stroke of her pen, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer catapulted immigration to the nation’s political forefront.
The legislation Brewer signed, Senate Bill 1070, is easily the country’s toughest anti-immigration measure. Its provisions include making it a state crime to be in the country illegally and a requirement that police demand proof of legal immigration status from anyone they might reasonably suspect of being undocumented. The new statute also allows people to sue local police for enforcing “federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”
Although the bill has garnered strong support in some circles, it has also already spawned at least three lawsuits seeking to overturn the measure. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is also considering a federal suit to block the law from going into effect later this year. Some legal observers say the litigation has a good chance of success.
The new law has also inspired threats of boycotts against Arizona from one of the state’s own Congressmen, Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, who called the measure “racist and unjust.” Some groups acted on that request right away. Pressure is being brought to bear on Major League Baseball to pull the 2011 All-Star Game, which is slated for Chase Field in Phoenix, while some trucking companies have said they won’t travel through the state anymore. The Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association also reports that by the end of April, just a week after Brewer signed the bill into law, 19 conventions from out-of-state organizations had been canceled statewide, costing hotels there at least $6 million in revenue.
That could become much worse if Mexican nationals heed their government’s recently issued Arizona travel alert, which warns that, “any Mexican citizen could be bothered and questioned for no other reason at any moment.” According to a report from the University of Arizona’s Business Research Center, Mexican nationals make approximately 24 million trips to Arizona each year, much of it for shopping and leisure, pumping more than $2 billion into the state’s economy. The study was funded by the Arizona Office of Tourism, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
As might be expected, the happenings in Arizona have hit a nerve in California, which has an estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants. In the immediate aftermath of the bill’s signing, San Francisco city leaders called for the city to fully divest from all Arizona-based contracts, as have Oakland and Los Angeles. Other major cities from across the nation, including St. Paul, Austin, Washington and Boston, have since announced plans to sever contracts with Arizona-based companies and government agencies and bar work-related travel to the state. More may soon follow. State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to review and possibly cancel any contracts the state has with Arizona.
In Sacramento, where more than 20 percent of residents are foreign born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mayor Kevin Johnson initially said the city should join in the boycotts. He later backed off, saying he preferred to let the situation play out in court.
State Assemblyman Roger Niello, a Fair Oaks Republican, says he understands the concerns about the measure, but contends the reaction from opponents has been “over the top.” He also notes that polls show 70 percent of Arizona residents favor the new law.
“Do you think lawmakers there are going to be more concerned with that 70 percent or with what people in San Francisco think?” he asks. Niello also doubts the law will have much impact here.
“That law would never pass here. Everybody knows that,” he says, noting that anything like it would have to be initiated at the ballot box.
California voters have taken that route once before, endorsing a sweeping ballot measure in 1994 to deny illegal immigrants access to most public services. That measure was mostly invalidated by the courts, which ruled that the federal government is ultimately responsible for controlling immigration, not the states.
For all of their differences, all sides are united in the belief that the root of the problem lies in a fundamental failure of the federal government to address immigration reform. â?¨ “The Arizona Legislature has decided that if Washington, D.C., won’t enforce immigration laws, they’ll do it themselves,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.
He is one of many observers who believe the Arizona measure could prod the federal government to finally act on immigration reform. But Niello cautions that more states will have to be involved for that to happen.
“If Arizona is the only state to be proactive, there’s not much chance Washington will act,” he says.
If more do follow suit — to date, lawmakers in at least 10 states have indicated their intention to introduce similar bills — it would continue a growing trend of states bucking Capitol Hill, either for doing too much or too little. Already this year, scores of states have passed bills or resolutions vowing to resist new federal health care mandates, and others have endorsed measures to defy federal oversight of guns and gun manufacturing.
States have also not been ignoring immigration. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 1,500 immigration-related bills were introduced in statehouses in 2009, with more than 200 being enacted.
Whether it all adds up to Congress taking action on immigration this year remains to be seen. It is an election year, and, for all the call for reform, there is nothing approaching consensus on what that reform should look like. Still, after initially seeming to concede he didn’t have the political capital to goad Congress into passing a reform measure, Obama recently said he expects them to do so by year’s end.
Sacramento State professor and national political observer Barbara O’Connor says he may get his wish, but given the volatile mood of voters this year, not until after the mid-term elections in November.
“Right now, every focus group in the country says people’s focus is on jobs, jobs, jobs,” she says. “Polls show that people really do want immigration reform, but people care more right now about jobs and the economy. That’s the bottom line.”