Friday, May 14, 2010

Arizona and Immigration

Here in the US, the subject of illegal immigration has received quite a bit of coverage lately, the most since 2005, mostly owing to the State of Arizona passing what some see as draconian state laws, which essentially enforce federal immigration laws on a local level.

Controversy has focused on the racial aspect of the laws, which seem to target minorities most likely to be illegal migrants. From what I understand, the law doesn't actually endorse racial profiling, but it gives local law enforcement the authority to challenge the immigration status of any individual they deem suspect. Given that most illegal immigrants in Arizona are Hispanic, it's doubtful that individuals of Asian or European ancestry will find themselves pulled over, being forced to produce a valid social security card, passport or birth certificate (which most people don't carry on their persons).

Individuals, communities, even entire states have called for economic and political boycotts of Arizona, at times to ridiculous levels. A friend of mine, unusually dark-skinned for a Palestinian and well connected in leftist circles, who is contemplating leaving Wisconsin for warmer pastures at summer's end, yesterday commented that Arizona is out the question, "because of the racism".

Clearly, with emotions running high, the laws of the land in tatters and politicians jostling for soundbites to ride the wave of anticipated street protests and counter-protests (the law will go into effect in July), there has never been a better time for me to jump in on an issue I don't feel strongly about and make some enemies.

Personally, ideally, I support naturalizing the 10-20 million illegal migrants that are currently in the country. Presumably, they’re employed, somewhere, so they are already contributing to the economy and filling holes in the low skill labor market that our more lazy low income citizens, sitting pretty on government handouts refuse to fill. More importantly, I think kicking people out of their homes, splitting families and destroying lives is always a bad solution. I could draw some interesting comparisons between Israeli settlers and illegal Mexican migrants, and demand that those who support the rights of the later also support the rights of the former, but we'll leave that for another time.

We should understand, there are no good solutions here. We’ve tried naturalizing millions of illegal migrants in the past. As long as our border with Mexico is porous, and as long as Mexico is verging on the brink of failure as a state, millions of migrants will attempt to come here, seeking work and a better life for their families. A Mexican friend once said to me that it’s so bad in Mexico that even the trees run across the border.

Without sealing that border, no solution is viable or permanent. Legalizing 10 million means nothing when there are 1-3 million people crossing into the US illegally every year. However, sealing that border is also a massive technical and political challenge, given our trade commitments under NAFTA and the potential for unintended consequences. With 10-20% of their citizens living in the US and sending money back to feed and clothe their families, it’s not clear if Mexico could survive us sealing the border. In effect, we act as a safety valve, draining the building pressure on their society. A failed Mexican state is clearly not in anyone's interest, as it would only multiply the many problems that exist now with human trafficking, drugs, crime and poverty, on both sides of the border.

The current situation is in many ways a balance of bad options, an unhealthy, but manageable status quo, which is why you don’t see anyone in authority rushing to fix it. Idealism, sloganeering and demagoguery is fine from the sidelines, but as Bush and now Obama have discovered, pragmatism often wins out.

Unfortunately, that status quo has also imposed a tremendous financial and social cost on the border states, Arizona in particular. The recent law is an attempt by local politicians to address the demands and pleas of their constituents; to close a gaping wound that is growing, draining state coffers, taxing local law enforcement, education and public services to breaking point. Arizona doesn’t need scoffing and boycotts, it needs understanding and material assistance from the federal government, and from all of us who haven’t born the financial and social burdens of migration.

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