The state of Arizona’s new anti-immigration law shines a spotlight on the racism of large swaths of American society. It also gives President Obama a chance to take a politically smart and morally righteous stand in favor of immigration reform and civil rights for immigrants.
On April 23, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a new law that would require police officers to question someone about their immigration status if they believe the individual might be an illegal immigrant. Officers can require suspects to provide identification to determine immigration status.
Police officers can now stop anyone they believe has Latin American ancestry and ask for their papers. It will lead to racial profiling. It also forces immigrants to carry around their documentation papers at all times.
Arizona has a long history of racism. White settlers in the early twentieth century stole land from Native Americans and people of Mexican descent who had settled the region long ago. During the 1930s, Mexican-American farmworkers, some of whom held American citizenship, were rounded up and shipped to Mexico to free up jobs for whites.
After World War II, the Bracero Program created a system of guestworkers to toil on Arizona farms without any ability to stay in the United States for the long-term. With virtually no federal supervision, growers took advantage of the workers, sometimes not paying them, often housing them in dilapidated buildings, forcing them to work long hours in the desert heat, and allowing them to die of heat stroke rather than reduce production.
Arizona also has plenty of racists in power today. Sheriff Joe Arpaio has launched a personal vendetta against immigrants. The self-proclaimed “America’s Sheriff” routinely conducts street patrols, not to fight crime, but to look for undocumented immigrants. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office website brags of the over 30,000 immigrants Arpaio and his officers have turned over to the federal government. Arpaio even requires witnesses and victims of crime to prove their immigration status.
For his racist actions, Arpaio has become a hero to conservative Arizona residents and anti-immigrant groups nationwide.
The absurdity of Arizona’s immigration law demonstrates the disconnect between the realities of the American economy and anti-Latino fervor. Particularly in the border states like Arizona, Latino migrants do most farm work, construction, and other low-wage labor. Without these workers, the housing boom that made Arizona rich during the 2000s would never have happened. Yet at the same time, whites resent Latinos for their language, culture, and religion.
The attention paid to this offensive new law opens up a significant opportunity for Democrats, if they are capable of taking advantage. Latinos already vote heavily for Democrats and helped Barack Obama win such states as Nevada and New Mexico in the 2008 elections. Unfortunately, many Democratic legislators want to avoid immigration reform because they fear stirring up anti-immigration white voters.
However, President Obama seems to be up to the challenge of immigration reform. He recently called it his top priority, now that health care has passed and a financial regulation reform package seems inevitable. Senate leaders are preparing to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill. House Democrats have already taken the lead to shape this debate.
On the other hands, few Republicans are prepared to support a bill that could make this country less white.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Republican Party decided to become the party of white people. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy to take advantage of white disaffection toward the Democratic Party in the wake of civil rights made political sense at the time, despite its moral bankruptcy. This ushered in the era of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush.
As immigrants flood into the nation, remaining a white supremacist party spells political disaster for the Republicans. Some Republican leaders know this and want to create opportunity in their party for Latinos, but the Republican base wildly opposes immigration reform and any legislation that seems to help out immigrants.
American pundits love to say that as California goes, so goes the nation. If this is true, we can look at the last time a state passed a major immigration restriction law. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187. Pushed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who hoped to ride the issue into the White House, Prop 187 prohibited undocumented migrants from using the state’s social services.
Later ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, Prop 187 mobilized the state’s enormous Latino population into political activism. California, the home of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and any number of other conservative icons, became one of the nation’s most reliable Democratic states by 2000. It has remained so to the present. As Latinos become more established in the nation, they have flexed their political muscles, looking to defend themselves from the racist attacks perpetrated by the Republican Party.
If Prop 187 caused this sea change in California, will Latinos help turn Arizona to the Democrats in response to the new immigration law? And will the rest of the country follow?
Latinos have moved throughout the United States. Over the past decade, Latino populations in states far from the U.S.-Mexico border, such as Nebraska, Tennessee, Iowa, Oregon, and North Carolina, have exploded. This has led to significant white backlash in these states, including the creation of such anti-immigration vigilante groups as the Minutemen and even violence.
While the Republicans may take advantage of white anger and fear in the fall midterm elections, the continued growth of the Latino population means their white identity places them at peril. Anti-Latino sentiment cost them in 2008. Traditionally Republican states like Texas and Arizona have enormous numbers of new Latino voters. Nothing mobilizes these voters like a direct attack upon their existence in their new home.
President Obama’s desire to take up immigration reform and Republican resistance to it will remind this growing demographic which political party believes in equal rights and which wants the U.S. to be a white man’s nation. It could help lock Latinos into the Democratic Party for a generation.
Immigration reform is also the right thing to do. Reform means undocumented workers won’t die in the Arizona desert trying to cross the border. It means that racist state legislatures will be unable to pass anti-Latino legislation. It will welcome Latino citizens into the American body politic. And it will recognize the reality of low-wage labor in this country, giving workers increased labor and civil rights.