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Arizona's immigration strategy: Make life tough

The bill passed this week reflects the government's belief that illegal immigrants will leave or stay away if conditions are harsh enough. Critics say it doesn't work.

April 14, 2010|By Nicholas Riccardi and Ashley Powers
  • Jose Melendez, 55, in the Flagstaff meat shop where he works, opposes the bill the Arizona Legislature just passed that gives police broad new powers to combat illegal immigration.
Jose Melendez, 55, in the Flagstaff meat shop where he works, opposes the… (Felicia Fonseca / Associated…)

Reporting from Phoenix and Tucson — For years Arizona's government has tried to deter unlawful immigration with a consistent approach -- make life for illegal immigrants so uncomfortable and uncertain that they will leave, or never come in the first place.

So this week, when the House of Representatives passed what's viewed as the toughest state law against illegal immigration in the nation, it was the continuation of a pattern that has been widely popular in the state.

"When you make life difficult," said state Sen. Russell Pearce, author of the current bill and earlier hard-line measures, "most will leave on their own."

There is evidence that is true. The number of illegal immigrants in Arizona dropped 18% between 2008 and 2009, the largest decrease in the nation, according to federal estimates.

"People are not going out to restaurants. They're afraid to do things with their families," said Sergio Gaxiola, 57, of Nogales. "The pressure has been building."

In 2007, the state passed first-in-the-nation penalties for employers who don't ensure their workers are in the country legally. The law led many illegal workers to conclude that they could never find steady jobs in Arizona.

Last year, the state made it a crime for state workers to give illegal immigrants unauthorized benefits, which scared many from applying for government assistance they are allowed.

The sweeping bill, SB 1070, passed by the Legislature on Tuesday makes it a crime to lack proper immigration paperwork and requires police, if they suspect someone is in the country illegally, to determine his or her immigration status. It also bars people from soliciting work as day laborers.

"The bill in its totality is designed to make life miserable for immigrants in the state of Arizona," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Critics say the state's approach to combating illegal immigration doesn't work and only stigmatizes Latinos, legal and illegal.

The drop in illegal immigrants, they argue, is largely due to Arizona's cratering economy, which has racked up losses in immigrant-heavy trades faster than most other states.

"The law doesn't matter to someone who's willing to risk their life crossing the border," said Rep. Daniel Patterson, who represents an immigrant-heavy district in Tucson and voted against the bill.

As has happened with other official steps to deter illegal immigration here, Tuesday's party-line vote -- 35 Republicans backed the measure and 21 Democrats opposed it -- was greeted with populist applause from anti-illegal-immigration activists and a smattering of protests from civil liberties and immigrant rights groups. The state Senate passed a similar bill this year; after it approves small fixes in the House version, it will go to Gov. Jan Brewer.

A few dozen people protested the measure Wednesday outside the office of the Republican governor, who has not commented on the bill but is widely expected to sign it. Lydia Guzman, a prominent immigrant rights activist, argued that Pearce's attempts to chase illegal immigrants out of Arizona were hurting the state's economy.

"Every time someone leaves, they take three jobs with them," Guzman said, adding that workers' taxes and spending fund the rest of the economy. "That makes stores close down. We're having a huge problem with vacant homes. It's hurting our bottom line."

Advocates of the attempt to push illegal immigrants out -- known as "attrition through enforcement" -- say the tactic is a natural part of enforcing laws.

"It sends a message that their jurisdiction is not one where you want to be an illegal alien," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions. "That's what most enforcement is about -- not to lock everyone up, but to get voluntary compliance."

Krikorian said that although it's not possible to arrest every illegal immigrant, enough high-profile arrests will send a message. He noted, for example, that enforcement can discourage drunk driving, even though it's impossible to arrest every drunk driver.

Todd Landfried, a spokesman for a group of businesses that opposed the bill, disagreed with the analogy. He said employers will be wary of hiring anyone who looks foreign for fear that police may be called.

"There is a significant difference between pulling people over for drunk driving and passing laws that create incentives for job discrimination," Landfried said. "It's much more harmful to the broader society."

Critics say the law will lead to stepped-up racial profiling as police ask people who appear foreign to prove they are legal. Immigrants say they already face discrimination and expect it to get worse. Graciela Beltran, 43, of Tucson said she was asked for immigration papers while boarding a bus.

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