Arizona’s Immigration Surprises

Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, which goes into effect on July 29, has been a rallying point for many conservatives. It reinvigorated the lackluster administration of Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, and has earned enthusiastic support from tea party activists in Arizona and elsewhere. But many aspects of the law should give conservatives cause for alarm.

The problems begin in Section 2 of the law, which grants all legal residents the power to sue any state agency or official that they believe is failing to enforce immigration laws. This provision will funnel millions of dollars to trial lawyers and put Arizona police officers in a no-win situation.

As 19-year Phoenix Police Department veteran David Salgado has said, enforcing the law could get him sued by the federal government for violating civil-rights protections, while failing to enforce the law could get him sued by anti-immigration activists. Two county sheriffs in Arizona have already created funds to cover their departments against the lawsuits that will inevitably come, undermining law enforcement and enriching trial lawyers along the way.

Worse, deputizing all of Arizona’s police officers as federal immigration agents will make their jobs more difficult and dangerous. This is because unauthorized immigrants would be all the more reluctant to report crimes or work with police as witnesses. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and Boston, has said, officers “can’t prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us for fear of being deported.”

Business owners also have much to fear from Arizona’s law. Sections 7 and 8 reaffirm the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), which mandated that all businesses in the state use the faulty E-Verify system that, according to a 2010 audit from Westat, fails to identify undocumented workers 54% of the time. LAWA also mandated stiff sanctions against employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will soon challenge the constitutionality of LAWA before the Supreme Court on the grounds that it pre-empts the federal government’s immigration power.)

Building on LAWA, Arizona’s new law enacts a two-strike policy under which second-time business offenders lose their business licenses. Thus a law championed by conservatives makes it harder for businesses to do what they are supposed to: lower costs and pass savings on to consumers.

Immigrant scientists, entrepreneurs and laborers bring innovation, dedication and good old-fashioned hard work to bear on improving their own lives and the lives of others around them. Removing restrictions on the movement of labor—which primarily serve to protect labor unions and assuage nativists—would be an enormous boon to the national economy.

Arizona’s law is popular partly because Arizonans fear an illegal immigrant crime wave. But crime rates in Arizona are at historic lows. According to the state Bureau of Justice, violent crime rates in 2008 (the latest year for which data are available) were lower than any point since 1976. Property crime rates have declined even more steeply, with 2008 figures lower than at any point since 1966. It is a myth, then, that illegal immigrants bring a wave of crime in their wake.

Arizona’s new enforcement measures won’t solve the problems of unauthorized immigration and the black market in labor. Solutions will come only from expanding legal immigration—by removing barriers to the movement of people across borders (except those for keeping out criminals, potential terrorists, and people with infectious diseases).

Without expanded legal immigration, laws like Arizona’s will continue to have troubling and unforeseen effects on police officers, businesses and others.