The debate over Arizona’s new immigration law was bound to get overheated very fast. Few policy debates are more apt to consist of people yelling past each other than those that involve immigration. Those who argue that the police-powers law is carefully crafted and entirely reasonable are mostly correct. Those who argue that the law terrorizes the Hispanic community are also correct — because perceptions matters, even misperceptions. The danger is that we may be focusing too much attention on politically painful policies that only tinker marginally with police powers, and not enough on more palatable ones that can profoundly alter the economics of illegal immigration.
As one of the Arizona law’s principal drafters has explained, the law was carefully crafted to survive legal challenge — so much so, indeed, that it may not have much impact on day-to-day law enforcement. As Andy McCarthy notes, there may be “many instances where the law either won’t work or won’t be necessary.” Absent all the media hype, the bill might well fizzle into irrelevance soon after going into effect.
Despite the safeguards meant to survive legal challenge and prevent abuses, there is some real danger that instances of racial profiling and other abuses will result under the new law. But the hysteria of the bill’s opponents (it has been called a “cancer” and a “humiliation” for the Hispanic community) makes it look like the law has no safeguards at all. The more the bill’s opponents indulge in histrionic fear-mongering, the more illegal immigrants in Arizona will be scared into self-deporting — precisely what the bill’s proponents have wanted all along.
In this sense, President Obama has been enormously helpful to the whole coalition behind the Arizona law, particularly to the very anti-immigrant factions he most keenly opposes. By predicting the wholesale “harassment” of Hispanics under the law, Obama is fueling more fear among Hispanics than the law could have caused on its own in any form liable to survive legal challenge. After all, racial harassment is illegal, even under the new law. For Obama to throw around civil-rights charges that he won’t be able to prove in court is thus ideal from the point of view of the bill’s supporters.
I suppose you should be thankful when your opponent’s distortions help you advance your agenda in ways you could not have accomplished on your own. But here the benefit comes at a painful cost. The further alienation of the Hispanic community is a bad thing, not just for the Republican party’s prospects of rebuilding a “big tent” majority, but for the country as a whole. Besides, the solution to illegal immigration is most likely to lie where the cause lies: not in law enforcement but in the fundamental economics of why people want to come to the U.S. in the first place. Illegal immigrants think they can find work here. That’s what has to change.