Undermining Democracy to Pass Immigration Laws

TUCSON, AZ -- Although Judge Susan Bolton's ruling last week to halt the enactment of certain provisions of S.B. 1070, Arizona's harsh new immigration law, was an important step, it does not provide resolution to the bitter controversy surrounding the law, nor does it change the atmosphere of fear and hatred that undermines the democratic process and enables legislation like this to be passed in the first place.

Arizona is not the first local government in America to attempt the policies outlined by 1070, it is merely the first state to do so. Legislation that requires police officers to check the immigration status on the basis of 'probable cause' was first adopted on the local level by Prince William County, Virginia in 2007 and revoked a year and a half later. The legislation in both Arizona and in Virginia was written and supported by the national group FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), which was categorized as a hate group in 2007 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Michael M. Hethmon of FAIR proudly says, "I am the drafter of this ordinance. To the extent that there is some kind of mad scientist behind this, we'll be happy to take credit for it," and then proceeds to explain how the immigration issue became politically useful to local Republicans, regardless of the real impacts of immigration. "The idea that because we lack certain facts is a reason not to act is something of a self fulfilling prophecy," he justified.

The Virginia law had disastrous effects on the local economy -- effects that clearly have not been accounted for by Arizona's lawmakers. As the law forced a significant population of legal but frightened Hispanic families out of town, the town found itself without its economic base of labor, especially in the construction industry -- houses began to fall into disrepair, the houses left behind by fleeing families were left vacant. The rate of foreclosure in the county skyrocketed; it was the highest in the region during the thick of the housing crisis in 2008. The law itself proved to be inordinately expensive; taxes had to be increased to pay for police oversight and enforcement of the law, and businesses began to leave to other counties. There has been no indication that the framers of the Arizona law have gathered any evidence about the economic impact of their legislation, nor has there been a wide discussion of this impact.

The entire story of the events in Prince William County were documented by filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park in their film 9500 Liberty. I had an opportunity to speak with Eric Byler in Tucson, Arizona this weekend. He emphasized the extent of the destructive rhetoric of fear and hate that undermines the democratic process and clouds the debate around this issue. This rhetoric of fear is built on economic anxiety and jingoism. The laws in both Arizona and in Virginia were passed quickly on a wave of emotion, rather than considered carefully and debated rationally.

The debate around the anti-immigration law in Virginia tore the previously peaceful town apart politically and economically. Citizens were polarized and set against each other. Civic leaders, including the highly respected police chief, were slandered and careers put on the line. In city council debates that lasted all night, anti-immigration citizens tapped into the tremendous current of fear that runs beneath this issue; 9/11 was invoked repeatedly as the reason to be suspicious of all immigrants. "Remember 9/11" is a mantra of the anti-immigration right. But how could any of us? And when we remember, 9/11 has almost nothing to do with this issue: the terrorists were far from Latino, did not need to cross the boarder to get into this country, and had entered America as tourists, not immigrants. To invoke the pain and loss of 9/11 in this context destroys our capacity for rational debate; we must not be frightened of being cast as unpatriotic for discussing policy rather than fear.

Advocates of the anti-immigration legislation have fanned the flames of the debate by invoking images of violence perpetrated by Mexicans (specifically the drug cartels) including murders and beheadings in the desert, arguments which are empirically false but politically effective. Drug smuggling and illegal immigration are two distinct issues that effect two distinct populations.

In Virginia, the legislation was advocated by local bloggers, who claimed that Zapatista rebels were infiltrating their small town. On the comment sections of the blog, angry citizens advocated bringing guns to immigrant-rights rallies and picking some of them off. Mexican children were referred to as "parasites."

In Arizona, the debate over SB 1070 has empowered a huge rise in hate groups and violence, like J.T. Redy, a man with neo-Nazi ties who has declared a war on the "Narco-terrorists and illegal immigrants and patrols the Arizona border armed with automatic weapons. In June, Juan Variela was shot dead in Phoenix by a neighbor after an argument over 1070.

The Phoenix New Times has documented the rising tide of hate groups hate crime in Arizona that has accompanied the passing of SB 1070. The way the political debate is framed around immigration enables this type of hate on the ground. Without bloggers, politicians, and media who regularly imply or state that Mexicans take away American jobs or are responsible for crime open the door for hate crimes against immigrants to be seen as retaliation. In Arizona, the reality is that violent crime and undocumented crossings are way down. But, as Celeste González de Bustamante, a professor of journalism at The University of Arizona, notes:

...today's news media often posit problems such as immigration in a bipolar way, ignoring the complexity of the issue, as well as the majority of perspectives that fall between two extremes. Presenting immigration as a simple two-sided issue fuels divisiveness, contributes to hatemongering and hinders possibilities for reform.

Extreme language and directed hate are insurgency tactics calculated to destroy the democratic process and end rational debate -- similar to blowing up a polling place on election day. People who believe in justice become afraid to speak.

Although the legal challenge to S.B. 1070 in Arizona looks promising now that Susan Bolton halted the enactment certain provisions of the legislation -- including the police checks of immigration papers based on probable cause -- the battle is far from over. Judge Bolton left a provision that would make it a crime to "harbor" or "transport" an illegal immigrant, a provision which can be mobilized to break apart mixed-status families. And the battle will continue: FAIR and its local allies across the country will continue to push through legislation like this for political gains. Immigrant families will be threatened both with deportation and with persecution from hate groups and hateful individuals.

The law itself will persecute and break apart hard working families that love America. But politics of fear that surround the law threaten to undermine the democratic process that America is built upon. We should not be afraid to challenge intolerance. We should not need to depend on the courts to overturn illegitimate laws after they are passed, we should be empowered to stop such legislation in the public sphere without fear of slander and violence. Let us not allow hate and fear to undermine our beloved democracy.