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Don’t boycott Arizona!

Arizona-Mexico border at Nogales

In response to the Arizona immigration law introduced about 10 days ago, various pro-immigration groups condemned Arizonans for being bigots, and have called for a boycott of the state. But name-calling and boycotting are the wrong ways to oppose Arizona’s law, and will only make matters worse. 

I say this as someone who opposes the law. The measure makes the failure to produce identification illegal and allows the police to detain people they suspect of being in the country illegally. It gives police extraordinary powers, and is draconian.

I also do not excuse Arizona, as some have. I do not think that national government policy (like the lack of enforcement) made it inevitable – or justifiable - that a state like Arizona would have to take matters into its own hands.

It is often said that immigration into Arizona has led to violence and chaos, thus necessitating action by the state. The Mexican drug wars are said to be spilling over the border, along with the illegal immigrants. There is some truth to this: there have been rancher shootings, and kidnappings. On Friday, a law-enforcement officer was shot outside of Phoenix, and the local sheriff’s office said the suspects were illegal immigrants. But as Reason’s Nick Gillespie usefully points out, the crime in Arizona has actually declined. Gillespie quotes a CNN report:

According to FBI statistics, violent crimes reported in Arizona dropped by nearly 1,500 reported incidents between 2005 and 2008. Reported property crimes also fell, from about 287,000 reported incidents to 279,000 in the same period. These decreases are accentuated by the fact that Arizona's population grew by 600,000 between 2005 and 2008....

The number of apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants made by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency [also shows a decline]. Since a peak in 2000 of more than 600,000 illegal crossers apprehended, the number fell to 241,000 in 2009, Tucson Sector Public Affairs Officer Mario Escalante told CNN.

National government policy is not an excuse for Arizona, but it is a major source of the problem. For a start, as Clive Crook and others have highlighted, the current federal law is quite illiberal; Arizona sees itself as introducing laws that are consistent with the federal law, in enforcing those. As Crook notes, “federal law already requires non-citizens to carry their documents at all times. It is an offence not to.” If you are against Arizona’s law, you should be against the federal laws too.

Furthermore, at the same time liberals are protesting against Arizona, their political leaders in congress, the Democrats, are offering a harsher crackdown on the immigration. As the New York Times reported on Saturday, Democrat senators’ proposed immigration policy is centered on tough immigration enforcement, which would be “more far-reaching than anything in place now – or anything proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush. It begins with ‘zero tolerance’ for immigrants trying to enter the country illegally, by tightening border enforcement and by barring them from taking jobs in the United States.”  If all the talk is about how best to crack down on immigration, is it so surprising that a state will take that discussion at its word and seek to implement it?

Even though I’m opposed to the law, and think there is no excuse for it, I believe that a boycott is wrong. It is an attempt to silence by means of bans, rather than engage in debate. A boycott stigmatizes Arizona; it’s like the state becomes treated like South Africans during apartheid (and the Arizona law, while draconian, does not introduce apartheid).

The boycott is similar to the response by the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to the pensioner Gillian Duffy. After Duffy mentioned immigration, Brown refused to engage her on the subject; he left and called her “just a sort of bigoted woman” from inside his car. The boycott does the same thing, but on a collective level: we don’t want to debate you Arizona, because you’re all a bunch of bigots!

The Arizona immigration case is becoming another example of how issues in American politics are quickly turned into issues of identity. Arguments disappear, replaced by insults, as Ross Douthat argues:

The measure... has been denounced as a “Nazi” or “near-fascist” law, a “police state” intervention, an imitation of “apartheid”, a “Juan Crow” regime that only a bigot could possibly support. Faced with this kind of hyperbole, the opposed bigots have understandably returned the favor, dismissing opponents of the Arizona measure as limousine liberals who don’t understand the realities of life along an often-lawless border.

Singling-out Arizona and calling for a boycott will only entrench such divisions. The only thing worse would be to say that, not only is Arizona bigoted, but so too are large swathes of  the country. But that is indeed what some liberals are arguing. Frank Rich, in his Sunday New York Times op-ed writes: “The more you examine the law’s provisions and proponents, the more you realize that it’s the latest and (so far) most vicious battle in a far broader movement that is not just about illegal immigrants.”  

These kinds of arguments are a big problem. If liberals are truly “pro-immigrant” and not just trying to tar Republicans with the brush of “bigot” to hide their own deficiencies, they would do better to challenge the Democrats’ own policies that essentially target immigrants as inherently problematic.

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