Politics & Policy

Arizona Calling

The brewing immigration backlash.

Slate recently featured an article on the “unteachable ignorance” of the Bush red states, in light of the dismaying (from its perspective) election results. On immigration, we should talk about the “unteachable ignorance” of America’s political and media elites. Nothing will convince them to take the issue seriously.

The latest sign that the public wants the kind of immigration enforcement that politicians simply won’t give them comes out of Arizona. Proposition 200, a measure to tighten up enforcement of existing laws relating to illegal immigration, passed with 56 percent of the vote. It requires that someone provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote and valid ID when voting or applying for public benefits. Since it is already against the law for illegals to register and vote, and illegal for them to receive welfare, it is astonishing that Proposition 200 became–as the media always puts it–”controversial.”

What Proposition 200 exposed is this: Our elites have very little intention of enforcing immigration-related laws, and they are outraged at the notion that they should. All the great and good in Arizona lined up against the proposition. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, Republican Sen. John McCain, the Service Employees International Union, the Catholic bishops and the Chamber of Commerce all opposed it.

They were universally outraged at an initiative aimed at getting the public officials among them to do their jobs. “We haven’t changed any law,” says state Rep. Russell Pearce, a supporter of Proposition 200. “We’re changing the verification process to make sure that the current laws are enforced.”

Opponents took to complaining that the proposition would unfairly burden state and local workers with verifying the citizenship of the people they deal with. But is asking for an ID really such a burden? The clerks at Blockbuster somehow manage to do it. Proposition 200 backer Rusty Childress recalls that within an hour of publicly announcing the initiative, opponents held a rival press conference denouncing it as–what else?–racist. “All they can do is name-call on this issue,” says Childress, “because we are on the right side of the law.” And the racist argument didn’t wash. Childress explains: “Most people said: ‘Showing ID? That’s not racist. I show ID all the time.’” According to exit polls, 47 percent of Hispanics voted for the initiative.

Thanks to tightened enforcement elsewhere along the border, most illegal immigrants now come across the Arizona-Mexico border. Proposition 200 won’t have much effect on that flow, but might have a mild deterrent effect if illegals were to realize that the laws on the books won’t be ignored, according to Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. Proposition 200 gets at an enormous part of the illegal-immigrant problem, which is the welcoming environment created for illegal immigrants by lax enforcement. So long as illegals know they can live as quasi-citizens here, they have every incentive to keep coming.

Special interests want to keep it that way. “There are two groups who benefit from illegal immigration,” says Pearce. “Those groups who benefit politically because new immigrants vote Democratic. And those business groups that benefit from the cheap labor.” The public in general is the loser. Estimates of the costs to Arizona of illegal immigration go as high as $1.3 billion a year. “People say to me, ‘Immigration is a federal responsibility,’” says Pearce. “But I say, ‘It’s our health-care system, it’s our schools, it’s our neighborhoods.’”

That populist sentiment is very real, and elites ignore it at their peril. President Bush recently said that he wants to spend political capital in his second term. If he tries to spend much of it on his misbegotten proposal for a quasi-amnesty for illegal aliens, he will risk political calamity. The message from Arizona–and elsewhere on Election Day, when immigration-skeptics picked up strength–is to try increased enforcement first. Who knows? Once we begin to enforce the law, we might even learn to like it.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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