december coverFear and Loathing in Arizona

The sting of racism can be felt all the way to the bottom line. When elected officials in a given state behave badly, it doesn’t just hurt race relations, coarsen the dialogue, divide the population, and distort the politics. There are also real and tangible costs that impact the economy.

The people of Arizona learned that lesson the hard way as a result of the legislative blunder made by their elected officials in April 2010. That’s when the Arizona Legislature passed---and Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law---a dreadful measure that all but requires local and state law enforcement officers to engage in ethnic profiling of Latinos. Specifically, what SB1070 says is that local and state law enforcement officers must, in the course of their regular duties, try to ascertain the citizenship of anyone they suspect might be in the country illegally. And, for all intents and purposes, in a state like Arizona, those suspicions are likely to be limited to Mexican-Americans.

The very idea of law enforcement singling out a group of people for extra scrutiny based on skin color, accent, surname or other physical characteristic is offensive on its face. Besides, there is the additional question of just how intrusive this scrutiny would be. Defenders of the law initially tried to downplay the inconvenience to citizens by insisting that they could prove their citizenship by showing a driver’s license. But that defense began to take on water after Brewer said during an interview that a driver’s license might not be sufficient, and that one might need to produce a passport or birth certificate.

Really? So the state of Arizona had, in spasm of bigotry, passed a law that required Mexican-Americans to carry around with them a passport or birth certificate to prove that they had the right to be in a part of the country that was, less than 170 years ago, part of Mexico. All this while, for all practical purposes, those Arizonans lucky enough to have been born white could go on with their lives undisturbed.

It was enough to make you ask: Is this the new Southwest? Or the old South Africa?

Personally, I hardly recognize the place. I lived in Phoenix for two years in the late 1990’s, while I was writing for the Arizona Republic. In those days, the immigration war was just heating up. But there was still, particularly among longtime Arizonans, a racial/ethnic comity that seemed as much a part of the state as cactus, torquoise, and kachina dolls.

That comity is dead. In the weeks after SB 1070 went into effect, polls showed about 70 percent of white Arizonans supportive of the law and roughly the same percentage of Latino Arizonans opposed. Relationships are frayed. Families are divided. People who have been friends for thirty years or more now hardly speak. All because of a single piece of legislation. It’s worth pausing for a moment to ask: How did Arizona go off the deep end with regard to immigration? Here’s the short answer: It is all California’s fault.

That part of the story began in 1994, when voters next door in the Golden State approved Proposition 187. The ballot initiative denied education, welfare, and health care to illegal immigrants and their children. A federal judge struck down the measure, concerned that the state was encroaching on federal authority to enforce immigration law. Just like SB 1070.

It was Proposition 187, and how it energized Republican voters, that prompted President Clinton to show he was just as tough on illegal immigration as the GOP. In October 1994, just before California voters went to the polls, Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper to beef up enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico south of San Diego. As a result, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants took a detour through the Arizona desert. Many Arizonans will tell you that this is when the “invasion” began.

Don’t believe it. I lived there, and I saw these events up close. It was more like a massive job fair where Arizonans eagerly snapped up illegal immigrant workers to do everything from cleaning homes to building homes, from tending gardens to tending children, from working in the fields to working in restaurant kitchens. If the chores were hard, dirty, tedious or unpleasant, immigrants did them. And if they hadn’t, who would? The native-born weren’t interested.

Phoenix turned into a boomtown, and this was fine by the Phoenicians, many of whom envisioned their city becoming a desert metropolis with all the trimmings. But they weren’t prepared for the demographic side-effect: the gradual sense that they were losing control, and the fear that whites would eventually become a statistical minority in Arizona just as they were already in California, Texas, and New Mexico.

Tens of thousands of immigrants turned out for soccer games in Maricopa County between teams from Mexico and the United States, cheering and waving Mexican flags. In 2006, hundreds of thousands of people---many of them thought to be immigrants---marched in downtown Phoenix to demand that Congress and the president work toward comprehensive immigration reform.

It was happening. As feared, the ruling class was losing control. Enter SB 1070, a futile attempt by lawmakers to try to regain power by creating a hostile environment so that Latinos, even legal residents and U.S. citizens who had every right to be in Arizona, would simply run off to avoid conflict.

Those who stayed put, and who were undocumented, would be rounded up by local and state law enforcement officials and handed over to federal immigration agents. Whom do you suppose those agents worked for? That’s right, President Obama. Since he took office, Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower launched “Operation Wetback” in 1954. It’s something he and other administration officials have bragged about publicly. The overachiever in the Oval Office has been able to accomplish this feat because his administration uses local and state police as a force multiplier. So, in a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, Republicans in Arizona passed a law that was then utilized by Democrats in Washington to accomplish their own goals.

It was the perfect plan until something unexpected got in the way. It’s called the Constitution. In July 2010, Federal District Court Judge Susan Bolton ruled major portions of the law unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld that ruling. Determined to make one last stand, Arizona officials have appealed to the supposedly more conservative Supreme Court.

But, besides violating the Constitution, the law also offended the sensibilities of municipalities, organizations, corporations, elected officials, private individuals and even a slate of foreign countries. Many of these entities responded by boycotting Arizona. A number of conventions, concerts, and corporate events throughout the state were cancelled. Even Major League Baseball’s All Star Game---which was to be played in Phoenix in July 2011---was affected when activists pressured league officials to move the game to another city. The event went on as planned, despite protests outside the ballpark.

Researchers have just begun to quantify the damage of the SB 1070 economic backlash. According to a report by the Center for American Progress that was released in late 2010, about six months after the bill was signed into law, the measure had cost the state as much as $141 million in lost convention business. According to the report, Arizona’s hospitality industry had also sustained a blow. In just the first few months after the law was signed, hotels in the state lost an estimated $45 million and local economies in Arizona lost as much as $96 million. When the smoke clears, according to the study, the canceled meetings and conferences could cost Arizona nearly 2,800 jobs, $87 million in lost wages, and more than $250 million in lost economic output over the next few years.

This is one reason that, in a development that caught some observers by surprise, the critics of SB1070 now include many members of the state’s business community. Many of these folks are Republicans with a long track record of contributing funds to GOP candidates and causes. They complain that the law has damaged the state’s “brand,” made it more difficult to recruit workers to relocate to Arizona from other states, and discouraged outside companies from investing in the state. Some of them might have supported SB 1070 when it first passed, but it’s difficult to get them to admit it now.

After all, the Arizona business community had already seen this movie once before, and it didn’t end well for the state. Twenty years earlier, civil rights groups had organized a boycott to punish Arizona for its stubborn refusal to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday. The NFL pulled the Super Bowl from the Phoenix area, costing the state an estimated $100 million, and the NBA informed the Phoenix Suns that they wouldn’t be considered to host the All-Star Game. By the time Arizona voters finally called “uncle” and approved a ballot initiative creating the holiday in 1992, convention business in Phoenix alone had suffered a nearly $200 million loss

You would have thought that Arizonans had learned their lesson from the Martin Luther King holiday debacle 20 years ago, but you’d be wrong. And with the legal challenges and economic costs associated with SB1070, you’d think they would have learned another lesson, and you’d be wrong again.

Brace yourselves. The latest news from Arizona is not good. It seems that lawmakers there are miffed that in the nearly two years since they passed what was (up to that point) the nation’s toughest immigration law, other states like Alabama have come up with even tougher measures. Not to be outdone, those Arizona lawmakers are now scheming to come up with new legislation that would be even tougher. For instance, the legislation includes bills that would require school districts to document the number of undocumented children in public schools and compel hospital staff to report suspected illegal immigrants who seek medical care.

As Arizona has taught us over and over again, ignorance, bigotry and fear are expensive afflictions. Imagine how much the next outbreak will cost.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a contributor to CNN.COM, a commentator on National Public Radio, and author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam).