Divided States

Divided States

A patchwork of local laws reflects the complicated, contradictory national debate over immigration policy.


In the past year, we’ve become a nation of a thousand immigration laws and policies–a confusing mosaic of fear, anger and nativism, of generosity, reason and self-defeating silliness. Although some of those laws were enacted before the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in June, that failure greatly expanded the vacuum that local efforts sought to fill. It has also nourished the demagoguery that helps drive them, made immigration a prime domestic issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and intensified the fears those laws in turn produce.

If your name is Hernandez and you speak little English, can you risk reporting a crime to the local cops without being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement? If you have a contagious disease or you’re a drug addict, how willing will you be to seek treatment, and how safe are other residents because of that fear? And what about those driver’s licenses? What happens when a car driven by an American citizen collides with one driven by an undocumented–and uninsured–immigrant? As the anti-immigrant zealots fan a generalized hysteria, these unresolved questions, which provoke legitimate fears, get little airtime. And there are many more: what are the chances of being stopped on the highway by sheriff’s deputies empowered to arrest illegal immigrants, or of legal residents being rousted at midnight by warrantless raids?

There are also important questions of social policy crying out for redress. What sort of future is facing an 18-year-old high school graduate who was brought here by her parents as a young child and knows no other country but can’t go to college, get a driver’s license or a legal job? Conversely, how large a price should local schools have to pay to teach English to the children of illegal immigrants? A nation struggling with such issues is in dire need of leadership from its central government.

In the first eleven months of 2007, forty-six state legislatures passed nearly 250 immigration laws–some 1,560 were introduced, nearly triple the number for the same period in 2006. Cities and counties have enacted hundreds more, ranging all over the philosophical and political map.

Begin with the action the city council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, took in 2006 to prohibit landlords from renting to undocumented aliens. Hazleton’s ordinance, which preceded the Senate vote, became a model for similar measures in the Southern California city of Escondido and in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch. All three quickly faced constitutional challenges–the Escondido council reversed itself in the face of mounting legal costs; the Hazleton and Farmers Branch laws were blocked by federal courts. But the anxieties and rage that drove those acts weren’t dampened by a couple of judges.

It’s a long list. Last February Lake Havasu, Arizona, like a number of other cities, made an agreement with the feds under which local cops will be trained by federal agents to interrogate and detain all illegal immigrants for deportation. In June Green Bay, Wisconsin, voted to yank the licenses of businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. In October the supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia, voted to crack down on illegal immigrants by increasing police enforcement, creating a Criminal Alien Unit and denying virtually all services, including substance abuse counseling. In addition to a long list of sanctions, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007 makes it a felony to “conceal, harbor or shelter from detection any alien.”

Similar state laws have been enacted in Arizona and Tennessee. Alabama has created a Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission to figure out some comprehensive approach to undocumented immigrants (a group that was immediately attacked as being stacked with pro-business and pro-immigrant voices). In October Missouri Governor Matt Blunt issued a press release lavishly praising the arrest and delivery to immigration authorities of a vanload of illegal immigrants who were stopped on the pretext of following another vehicle too closely. He promised (in Churchillian cadences) to “make every effort, implement every tool and take every step to ensure the laws against illegal immigration are enforced.” Virginia has prohibited the sale of automatic weapons to illegal aliens, and Rhode Island approved legislation that will issue ID cards to all residents over 21–excepting only undocumented immigrants–allowing them to drink alcohol.

In other places, the response has been more positive. Last summer, the city council of New Haven, Connecticut, enacted a measure to issue what it calls Elm City Resident Cards–ID cards that also serve as small-balance debit cards–to all local residents, legal and illegal. In November San Francisco adopted a virtually identical program. Also last summer, the Illinois legislature prohibited employers from participating in the mandatory federal employee verification system until the feds get their data systems in order; the Department of Homeland Security promptly filed suit to overturn the law. (A few weeks later, US District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, citing the high likelihood of error and jeopardy to legal workers, upheld a challenge filed by the ACLU and a coalition of labor and business groups to implementation of the employee “no-match” verification system.) The DHS has since asked for more time to revise the system.

Some fifty jurisdictions, among them San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have declared themselves sanctuary cities or cities of refuge and/or ordered their employees not to cooperate with the feds in enforcing federal immigration laws. Some, like Stamford, Connecticut, have created “no-hassle zones” for day laborers seeking jobs, nearly all of them undocumented. Detroit has an anti-profiling ordinance that prevents cops and other city employees from questioning people on the basis of a whole range of characteristics, including immigration status. Oakland, California, requires all municipal departments to have bilingual employees to deal with its diversity of non-English-speaking residents.

Some jurisdictions have changed their minds. Phoenix, which had been a quasi-sanctuary city, seems to be on the verge of reversing itself. Riverside, New Jersey, conversely, repealed its anti-illegal-immigrant ordinance after the resulting exodus (mostly of Brazilians) hit restaurants, beauty parlors and other local businesses–some were forced to close–and left a growing number of boarded-up downtown storefronts. In Oregon the legislature passed a law prohibiting businesses from gouging customers during emergencies, including “a crisis influx of migrants unmanageable by a county.” But the state also requires notaries to translate documents for those who don’t speak English, even as Kansas and a number of local jurisdictions this year made English their official language. In Pahrump, Nevada, it’s illegal to fly a foreign flag unless the American flag is flying alongside it.

Yet anyone looking for simple red state-blue state patterns is likely to be frustrated. Eight states–Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Idaho and Nevada, among them some of the most conservative in the country–have called for the repeal or deferral of the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which, beginning next May, will start to impose a set of stringent verification requirements for issuing driver’s licenses and other state identification documents. Some have pledged not to comply. The issue here is not liberal principle but cost and the expected aggravation of motorists (which would obviously be directed at state bureaucrats and politicians, not at Congress) once the rubber meets the road at the state DMV.

And then there’s Littleton, Colorado, an upscale Denver suburb with a growing Latino population, where the foundation-supported Littleton Immigrant Integration Initiative (LI3), housed in a city library, offers counseling on healthcare and countless other matters, citizenship tutoring and English-language training to all comers, regardless of documentation. Littleton sits in the heart of the district represented by Tom Tancredo, the Republican (and presidential candidate) who’s probably the most rabid foe of illegal immigration in Congress. Alejandra Harguth, who directs the program, says she’s rarely gotten any criticism from the community, and none from Tancredo.

Meanwhile, in the uproar that’s probably gotten the most recent attention, awkwardly amplified by Hillary Clinton’s clumsy handling of the issue in the Democrats’ October 30 debate, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, citing public safety considerations, moved to grant driver’s licenses to illegal residents. But he was quickly forced–in part by pressure from Washington, in part by upstate backlash–first to modify the policy and then to abandon it altogether. Of all the issues concerning illegal immigrants, giving them driver’s licenses (as de facto national ID cards) is far and away the one that generates the fiercest resistance. Even strong backers of legalization concede that this isn’t the issue they want to fight about.

If there is any geography here, it’s the geography of the immigrant dispersion itself. As more immigrants, Latino immigrants particularly, either move from or bypass the traditional immigrant states–California, Florida, Texas, New Mexico–and move into the Midwest and Southeast, where residents have rarely seen brown faces or heard Spanish spoken on the streets and in the malls, the backlash spreads with them. In many places, the new immigrants, stretched to pay for housing, live three or four to a room–often a total of ten or twelve people or more, with junk cars crowding driveways–in houses or condos designed for families of four. And of course, there are the new kids in the schools, many speaking little English and requiring additional services, crowding classrooms that were all-white a few years before. Illegal immigration, the Escondido city council determined, “diminishes our overall quality of life.” Illegal immigration in such contexts, of course, always means Latinos. But there are also towns in California’s Central Valley and in the Midwest that would die without those immigrants.

California, where 27 percent of residents are foreign-born, and which endured an intense anti-immigrant backlash in the early 1990s, appears to have become accustomed to its brown and Asian faces and to the countless accents and languages of its residents–and of course has assimilated their cuisine, music and art. (Recent Census data indicate that 70 percent of California’s “Mexicans” are US citizens.) Its population is now majority-minority; in another generation it will have an absolute Hispanic majority. Many parts of Iowa, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Missouri are just starting on that route.

More than anything else, the crazy quilt of contradictory local responses seems to reflect the nation’s own ambivalence about immigration. California denies driver’s licenses to undocumented residents but grants them in-state college tuition if they attended California high schools. Three years ago Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauded the Minutemen, the self-appointed enforcers of a tight border, for doing “a terrific job,” and he’s vetoed bills passed by the Democratic legislature that would have made undocumented residents eligible for driver’s licenses. But in October he signed a bill that prohibits cities from requiring landlords to check whether tenants are here legally.

The polls confirm the ambivalence: 69 percent of adults believe the illegal resident population should be reduced and (by 76 percent) should not be allowed to get driver’s licenses. But 43 percent also say that when illegal aliens who’ve committed no crime encounter local cops, they shouldn’t be arrested. By a margin of 58 to 35 they support “a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.” By 66 to 33 they say they’re not bothered when they encounter Spanish speakers. Some 45 percent (in an earlier poll) say immigration is a good thing; 19 percent, a bad thing; some 33 percent have no opinion.

But as with issues like gun control, the intensity of an opposition–in this case fueled by economic insecurity and fanned by radio and TV talkers–tends to overwhelm the pressure from the broader but generally passive pro-legalization plurality. Illegal immigration is the hot-button issue not only for the national talkers and bloggers, from Ann Coulter to Lou Dobbs to Rush Limbaugh, but for local and regional talk-radio hosts as well–Roger Hedgecock in San Diego, Armstrong Williams in New York, Terry Anderson in Los Angeles, Melanie Morgan in San Francisco, Martha Zoller in Gainesville, Georgia, Dom Giardano in Philadelphia and a score of others. Last April, having organized themselves into a quasi lobby called Let’s Hold Their Feet to the Fire, thirty-four of them brought their microphones and some of their listeners to Washington, broadcasting to their home audiences, urging anti-immigration e-mails and faxes and working Congressional offices to head off comprehensive immigration reform. Anything that might lead to legalization was “amnesty.” In its own survey, the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism gives Limbaugh et al. a big share of the credit for killing the immigration bill.

That bill, vulnerable on the right and left on any number of points, was an easy target for oversimplification. But the talkers also played a central role in stopping the appealing DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill–its sponsors included Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska–that would have provided a path to legalization for some 365,000 undocumented students who were brought here by their parents as young children, attended and graduated from high school and intended to go to college or serve in the military. No one could claim that they were lawbreakers. Many never knew their native countries and don’t speak the language, and few have any interest in going back. At a time when the imminent retirement of millions of baby boomers is predicted to leave major shortages of skilled workers and when the nation has already invested billions in their education, deporting them seemed as self-defeating as it was cruel. But none of that reduced the intense pressure on a Senate minority–nearly all Republicans–to kill the bill with a threatened filibuster.

It is probably also the talkers and their angry listeners who, as much as anyone, have gotten much of the GOP, including its leading presidential candidates, to replay the anti-immigrant wedge strategy that former California Governor Pete Wilson deployed in his 1994 re-election campaign, when he supported an initiative to deny most services, including schooling, to undocumented immigrants. But other Republicans are tearing their hair. “Some in the party seem pleased,” said former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. “They should be terrified.”

What Gerson and other savvy Republicans know is that in California, Wilson’s party paid a fearful price. Feeling vulnerable as aliens, a million California Latinos became citizens and, in the vast majority of cases, registered as Democrats in the years after 1994. Republicans have won little in California since. Something similar seems likely to happen nationally. At the same time, it is an unfortunate reality that, as Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and others have argued, the greater the ethnic diversity in a jurisdiction–and the larger the number of undocumented immigrants–the more reluctant are voters, who are still overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, to tax themselves for public services that they see going to “others.”

Nonetheless, given the nation’s high rate of demographic change and the rapidly growing proportion of Latino voters that will come with it, the GOP strategy is a bet on the past (and, perhaps, the present), not the future. Karl Rove and George Bush understood the stakes and, in pushing for reform that included a path to legalization and thus drew Hispanic voters, tried to put their chips on the other square. But after the immigration bill failed, the White House switched sides, cranking up its roundups and coming out against the DREAM Act. Meanwhile, the GOP presidential candidates seem certain that within the horizon of this election–or at least the primaries–illegal immigration, touching on all manner of economic and cultural anxieties, may be the best issue they have. And Democrats like Hillary Clinton are running for cover.

There are some 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, many in mixed families that include citizens–including US-born children–and other legal residents. The history of the past two decades indicates, according to most research, that rather than holding down the undocumented population, tougher border enforcement–more Border Patrol agents, more walls, more electronic sensors–has dramatically increased it. As enforcement made it ever more dangerous and expensive to cross the Mexican border, many workers who once shuttled back and forth chose to remain in the United States and send for their families.

In the long run, argues Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University, the most promising strategy depends on major investments in the Mexican economy and infrastructure (which would probably require basic political and economic reforms) and the creation of better opportunities there. In addition, the larger picture will be dramatically affected by two significant demographic trends: first, the sharply declining Mexican birthrate–down from 6.8 babies per woman in 1970 to 2.4 today–and the predicted concomitant decline in Mexico’s surplus labor force; second, the millions of skilled US boomers retiring in the next decade. If voters begin to understand that sustaining and growing the US economy and securing the retirements of those boomers will depend in large part on the labor and skills of immigrants–and that there is no one else–the issue may fade as quickly as it arose. What’s certain is that the faster the illegal immigrants who are already here can emerge from the shadows, the faster they can be trained to do those jobs. In another generation Americans may wish for more immigrant workers, not fewer.

At that point the nation may look back on this period as another of those eras, like the Red Scare of the 1920s or the McCarthy years of the ’50s, when the nation became unhinged; politicians panicked; and scattershot federal, state and local assaults led to unfocused, and often cruel, harassment. It may be seen in retrospect as a desperate rearguard attempt to freeze Anglo-white places and power in a mythic past. But today’s policy vacuum also stems from our collective uncertainty. A new society with new kinds of people and new voters is rapidly growing under and around us–just as it grew under our great-grandparents a century ago. Many of us still have no idea how to deal with it. At a time when other economic and social certainties are evaporating, and when income gaps are growing obscenely, demagogues have room to play. If there’s a recession, the backlash against not only illegal immigrants but all immigrants could get worse before it gets better. The hope is that the nation will somehow choose leaders committed to cooling those tensions, not fueling them.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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