How Arizona was goaded into passing a stupid law

Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the nation. Congress refuses to do anything. The result is panicky legislation that won't survive court tests. And lots of posturing at Arizona's expense.
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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in a Veteran's Day parade.

Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the nation. Congress refuses to do anything. The result is panicky legislation that won't survive court tests. And lots of posturing at Arizona's expense.

Media and political debate about Arizona's new law, mandating new checks on illegal aliens, seems to have brought out the worst in us. As it happens, I have spent part of my time in Arizona over the past 10 years.

Arizona and Phoenix in particular have been especially hard hit by the burst housing bubble and economic downturn. Unemployment and foreclosure rates are high. The state has had to face a budget crisis deeper than Washington's. Most relevant to the new law, Arizona among all the states has been hardest hit by flows of illegal aliens, drugs, and weapons across its southern border. Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the United States, as a spinoff of the human trafficking run by dangerous gangs. Illegals have been found jammed into locked transit houses and unsafe trucks. Human-trafficking-related death and violence have been common.

The middle-sized central Arizona city, where I spend time, until recently was best known for its small colleges, farming, and ranching. It is a conservative place but populated as well by California and Midwest retirees drawn to the city's natural setting and authentic old neighborhoods with Victorian homes. In recent years, however, it has been flooded by inflows of illegal Latinos far different from the family- and church-oriented, hard working Latinos familiar to Arizonans over many decades. Violent crime, drug production and trafficking, burglaries, and road accidents have skyrocketed. Burdens (and costs) also have mushroomed for local law enforcement, social service, and education agencies. Citizens no longer take casual night strolls they once did.

The home I share there with my life partner has been shaken twice in recent months by automobiles careening at high speed into its yard, both times driven by illegals high on drugs (who both fled the scene on foot, to be apprehended later). The drivers had no insurance and promptly disappeared, making restitution for property damage impossible.

Down the street, in this traditional neighborhood, a family residence became a notorious drug-distribution point, with autos driving through to make pickups, night and day. Couriers on bikes (Latinos, as it happens) made drug deliveries throughout the city. Law enforcement recently was able to stop the operation, after several years. But it was only one of many in the city.

Put this in Seattle terms. Imagine that, over a period of a few years, neighborhoods such as Magnolia, Ballard, and Queen Anne had been transformed from what they are into dangerous centers of crime and violence. How would we react?

Arizona has reacted in a particularly misguided way. The legislation signed by Gov. Jan Brewer was initially sponsored by a maverick Republican state legislator without much influence among his peers. But, given public outrage over the situation, it quickly gained support and passage. What it says, essentially, is that anyone stopped for a suspected legal violation — including routine traffic violations — could be checked for green-card or other status. If lacking proper documentation, the person in question would be in the soup. Since almost all illegals are Latino, they would be the focal point of the effort.

State law-enforcement and police groups opposed the legislation. They did not want their time spent in such activity, in the face of the far more important crime problems listed above. Nor did they want Latino residents to fear police and cease cooperation in crime-fighting. Gov. Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, signed the bill reluctantly. Even in doing so, she explained that its legality would be challenged and that, in any case, law enforcement officers would have to undergo special training to guard against its abuse.

This is one of those places where elected officials, facing an overwhelming tide of public opinion in favor of a given measure (in this case, the desire to "get tough" on illegal immigration), cast a vote that they half expect will be meaningless since courts would take them off the hook. They may not have been mistaken in that belief. Opinion surveys in Arizona show citizens backing the new law at levels around 70 percent but also show a majority expecting it to be struck down. (Given Arizona's high Latino population, many of that 70 percent must be Latinos who want a crackdown.) Brewer, recently unpopular because of her budget-cutting during the state's budget crisis, has seen her approval ratings soar since signing the bill.

Elected officials and media from elsewhere, including Seattle, have delighted, since passage of the law, in characterizing Arizona as racist or quasi-Nazi. Some have called for business/economic/tourism boycotts of the state. Al Sharpton, predictably, is on the ground in Arizona, milking the moment to increase his TV exposure and lecture fees. Mayor Mike McGinn says he personally won't be traveling to Arizona, in protest. It is an appealing story line for those who would use it: Highway pullovers and other such policies have been used in the past to unfairly harass African-American citizens. Anglo Arizonans must be evil since they would do the same to Latinos. Arizonans must be punished.

Both sides of the issue are right to point to federal failure as contributing to this mess. When she was Arizona's governor, present Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano complained loudly at the federal government's failure to deal with illegal immigration and sent an invoice for $1 billion to the Bush administration to cover state costs which she said rightly belonged to the feds. The Arizona state treasurer recently sent the same $1 billion invoice to the Obama administration — in fact, to Napolitano! — but has received no response.

Arizona is not the 1940s South. Its dumb law almost certainly will not stand and may never get a chance to be implemented.

This is a federal responsibility which is not being met. As President Obama recently pointed out, the Arizona law could well be followed by others which are similar. He is right to question it. The Justice Department is expected to challenge it. Several Arizona mayors and city governments, as well as private groups, have launched challenges of their own. A statewide ballot measure is being readied to strike it down.

Americans properly despise discrimination. But they also should despise (speaking of fascism) group guilt.

Arizona, under great pressure from a real problem, has passed a bad law. The law almost surely will be tossed out or amended. Will all of this prompt, finally, effective federal legislative action on the immigration issue?

We'll see a lot of self-righteous posturing and speechmaking by the administration and by congressional leaders of both political parties. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, facing a tough reelection fight and representing a state with a heavy Latino population, has been one of the prime posturers. Yet Reid, as most other administration and congressional players, will then concede that there is little likelihood that anything will happen in 2010.

This is a tough, emotion-laden issue. It will be made worse if debate about it is emotion-laden. Arizona is not the 1940s South. Its dumb law almost certainly will not stand and may never get a chance to be implemented.

It can be satisfying, in less pressured Seattle, to express moral outrage and point to others, elsewhere, as villains. But we will be better served by letting the Arizona law die of its own weaknesses and, then, by pressing our federal elected officials to stop grandstanding and get to work on a better answer.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of