Progressives Debate Arizona's New Immigration Law

By Philip Cafaro on April 28, 2010
Related Content: Arizona Law SB 1070 Topic Page

This past Friday, Arizona's governor signed Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the strongest bill to reduce illegal immigration in the nation, by far. According to news accounts, the bill does four main things.

First, it makes remaining in the United States illegally (technically, not registering with the government as a foreigner), currently a federal crime, an Arizona state crime as well, punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Second, it directs state and local law enforcement officers to vigorously enforce the law. If they have a suspicion that someone is in the country illegally, officers are required to ask for identification and run it through a federal database. If someone is in the country illegally, SB 1070 directs state law enforcement to turn them over to the federal ICE for deportation.

Third, foreign visitors who fail to carry proper identification and proof that they are in the country legally, are liable to arrest. However, this ID requirement does not apply to US citizens.

Fourth, like many laws passed in recent decades, it includes explicit provisions for citizens to sue state and local governments if they fail to enforce the law.


Clearly, with the highest numbers of illegal border crossings in the country and around half a million illegal immigrants in the state, Arizonans are fed up with the status quo. They want immigration laws enforced, and they want them enforced now.

As an advocate for reducing immigration, I’m generally supportive of efforts to enforce our immigration laws. It seems to me that all talk of reducing immigration levels is mere wind, without a commitment to enforcing whatever numbers we agree on. And pretty clearly, such a commitment has not been present in recent decades. That's why the United States has 12 million or more illegal immigrants.

Still, I'm a bit leery of the Arizona law. My concerns are well articulated by a friend, a fellow progressive, who has written and spoken out in numerous forums over the years in favor of immigration reduction. Here is a draft of an essay he dashed out on the topic, in some haste:


Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona has just signed Senate Bill 1070. It expands the definition of trespassing in order to criminalize illegal immigrants just for being in the state. [Actually, it doesn't do that; the claim appears to be based on an erroneous New York Times column. – Ed.]

It requires all non-citizens to carry proof of legal residency at all times. It requires the police to demand that documentation from anyone who they "reasonably suspect" is an illegal immigrant, and to arrest that person if he or she cannot provide it.

I favor efforts to reduce illegal immigration. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. This is clearly the wrong way.

How can the police "reasonably suspect" that an individual is in the country illegally? Is anyone who looks Hispanic (whatever that may mean) now to be a potential target of the police?

Other countries may take for granted that the police have the right to demand papers from anyone they choose. We pride ourselves on our freedom from this type of government power.

This bill forces us to ask: who are we?

Of course, illegal immigration itself forces us to ask: who are we? If large numbers of people can come here year after year against our laws and against our wishes, then we have obviously lost control of who "we" are.

But if we attempt to solve that problem by creating what is in effect a police state, then we have also lost control of who we are.

The new law allows the police to question anyone based on nothing more than a suspicion that an individual is an illegal immigrant. This is an invitation to racial profiling.

It is also an astonishing expansion of police powers. In effect, it does not just target people who are here illegally. It targets anyone whom the police choose to target. It is the essence of excessive government.

Until recently I had thought that Arizona was a mostly conservative state that favored limited government. But when it comes to illegal immigration, it seems that there are no limits.

It is true that the costs of illegal immigration have fallen heavily on states like Arizona as the federal government has failed to solve the problem. I would have supported Governor Brewer if she had instructed state police agencies to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law, just as they often help enforce other federal laws.

Instead she chose to sign a radical bill that is bound to destroy trust in the police and to trample on constitutional rights.

Illegal immigration is a serious problem. The citizens of Arizona understandably want to end it. But this will just make matters worse.

It associates the legitimate movement to reduce illegal immigration with a radical fringe. It makes it that much harder to explain the real problems caused by illegal immigration in the face of charges – in this case legitimate – of racism.

None of this is necessary. We already know how to reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants: enforce the laws against hiring them. Target their employers. Utilize the legal tools we already have.

Most Americans agree that illegal immigration has to be drastically reduced. We don't have to sell our souls to achieve this goal.

So says my friend. And remember: he supports immigration reduction, not just in theory, but "in the trenches" of public debate. So, is he right?

Are the 70 percent of Arizonans who support Senate Bill 1070 "selling their soul," abandoning freedom, and embracing racism? Or are Arizonans taking reasonable steps to enforce laws that the American people, in poll after poll, decade after decade, have insisted they want enforced – even though the corporate and government elites who make policy don't agree?

Here is a response to the previous essay from another progressive friend, active in local politics and particularly local environmental issues:

Is it possible that our country has become paralyzed and unable to talk or act about any important issue because everything is being framed in terms of race?

If so, then some of [former Colorado Governor] Dick Lamm's concerns about "balkanization" of the US because of too much immigration and diversity may have come true.

Frankly, I have a hard time determining what is "racist" or "racism" anymore. The terms have been used way too often and with too wide of a brush-stroke to have much meaning anymore; for example: "John Smith is against illegal immigration, most illegal immigrants are Hispanic, therefore, John Smith is a racist”. Or: "Bill Jones writes about the impacts of illegal immigration on blacks; thus he is pitting races against each other and is racist".

Here is a popular dictionary definition for racism:

1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others;

2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

I think the primary reason why our immigration laws have not been enforced is because of fear about "race". Which brings up the question - are our immigration laws inherently racist? Most people would probably say they aren't, although, interestingly enough, they give preference to certain races (non-white) because of family unification policies.

When people talk about reducing legal immigration, some say it is because we're racist, even when we're concerned about the overall numbers or economic impacts. So, then, is enforcing immigration laws inherently racist? Some on the open borders side have tried to make it so - i.e. "you're targeting poor Hispanics with workforce enforcement".

Here's a question. If enforcing immigration laws in general isn't racist, then what particular enforcement actions pass the "non-racist" test? E-verify? Workforce raids? Stopping people at random? Checking people stopped for traffic violations? Only checking people accused of felonies? How about the Arizona law?

I would argue that our current non-enforcement of immigration laws because most illegal immigrants are minorities, is racist itself. Many would ask, why is this one particular set of laws (immigration laws) not enforced? If it is because most of the offenders are minorities, then that means they are getting preferential treatment because of race. Clearly that is "discrimination or prejudice based on race" or racism in favor of minorities.

So, do I think the Arizona law is inherently "racist"? No. Do I think they need to have some guidelines around how to enforce it? Yes. But, in a state with 500,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, does it not make sense to check Hispanics more closely? Especially, if they don't have a driver's license or don't speak English, which would give reasonable people a suspicion that they are more likely to be here illegally?

In a country concerned with laws more than race, even legal resident Hispanics who would be "profiled" would be willing to be checked in order to have illegal immigration reduced.

Remember, the Arizona law does not state: "Being Hispanic is illegal". The law is, "it is illegal to be in the United States by entering illegally or by overstaying a Visa . . . .

I'm not saying I have the answers to any of this. I do think it is much more complicated than saying the law is racist because it asks law enforcement officials to ask people for identification if they have "reasonable suspicion" that people are here illegally and that could lead to racial profiling. After all, the Governor signed an executive order stating that all law enforcement officers would be trained in how to enforce the law.

So my question is this: Do we want immigration laws or not? Do we want them enforced or not. If the answer is "yes" to both questions, then perhaps we need to give law enforcement officials more tools to do their job, instead of continually doing everything we can to make sure they can't enforce the laws.

I do agree with you that the primary way of enforcing the law should be to ensure employers don't hire illegal workers through use of the E-verify system, which may need to be improved with a national ID card, or other way to catch identity theft . . . .

Bottom line for me is that we need to enforce our immigration laws, or just get rid of them. Not enforcing them is inherently unfair, a form of reverse racism, if it is true we aren't enforcing them primarily because minorities are the ones here illegally.

My second friend's response also makes a lot of good points. He homes in on a key issue when he asks: if the Arizona law is unfair and racist, what law – what law that actually worked – would you accept as fair and unbiased?

For many supporters of mass immigration, the answer, pretty clearly, is "none." No law that actually worked would be acceptable to Rep. Raul Grijalva or the editorial board of the New York Times or the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce, because they don't think immigration laws should be enforced.

Of course, these folks say otherwise, copiously. But they never give an example of an enforcement mechanism that is both fair and workable. Instead, they demonize those who propose solutions. The current law is a case in point.

However, that doesn't mean that the current law is without flaws, or that there aren't better methods to enforce our immigration laws and reduce immigration into the United States. My friends' arguments above point the way toward a resolution of some of these worries that could split progressives who want immigration reduction.

Both of them believe that requiring all U.S. employers to run new employees through the federal E-Verify database is a sounder, more efficient means for cutting back on illegal immigration. All three of us lobbied the Colorado State Senate a few months back, when a bill to require all employers statewide to do that was up for consideration.

Unfortunately, that bill went down to defeat. But similar bills are under consideration at both the state and federal levels, and they should be passed into law. Progressives who want to take the immigration issue out of the realm of race and build immigration policy around furthering sustainability, fairness, and the common good, should push for E-Verify laws.