Posted by: Jeff | April 30, 2010

Plain Talk On Arizona’s New Immigration Law

Touching some themes we’ve discussed before, one of Rachel Maddow’s latest segments highlights the way Arizona’s new immigration law is driving a wedge through the Republican Party. (And how Republicans themselves are desperately trying to paper over that fact.) There are, obviously, a lot of implications here for how a national fight over immigration policy could play out.

But I’d actually like to step back for a moment and make a broader moral point. Lindsey Graham, who often seems like a decent and reasonable guy, has twice now attempted to criticize the Arizona law while at the same time defending the people who supported it and voted for it. Maddow shows a clip of Graham at a recent Senate hearing saying, “What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out of control border, that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional.” Graham also described Arizonans as “under siege,” a phrase he repeated to Ezra Klein while making the same argument that Arizona’s law is an example of good people being driven by circumstances to irrational or unjust action.

Let’s unpack that. First off, an “out of control border” is an abstract concept. People can’t be afraid of an abstract concept, and they certainly can’t feel besieged by one. Precision in language would be useful here. What Arizonans (as well as the 51 percent of Americans) who support the new law are afraid of, and feeling besieged by, are the real-world consequences of an out of control border. Or, to be even more precise, what they perceive to be the real-world consequences.

And since we’re all adults here, I think we all know what those perceived consequences are: increased levels of crime and reduced availability of jobs and wages due to the influx of illegals. Well, as Joe’s father, a Republican judge in Texas, pointed out in our interview with him, it simply isn’t true that illegal immigrants have an unusually high crime rate in comparison to the American population at large. The American Conservative, of all places, had a massive and data-heavy article in March making the same point. On the economic side of things, we also know that the only Americans who see any negative effect on their wages due to competition with illegal immigrants are low-skill high-school dropouts. And even then, the effect is only 3 to 8 percent.

So the “good” people Lindsey Graham is referring to are not, in fact, afraid of or feeling besieged by the consequences of immigration. They are afraid of, and being besieged by, a specter that does not exist outside their own heads. (Honestly, how can anyone, especially white middle-to-upper class voters, feel besieged by a bunch of poor immigrants just trying to lock down a job so their families can eat? What sort of person thinks that way?)

In fact, I would take this farther. The only Americans who do suffer any negative consequences from immigration at all – those aforementioned low-skill high-school dropouts – are not represented by the very politicians who support Arizona’s law. We have lots of demographic evidence that, all other things being equal, people tend to be more conservative the more money they make. (Indeed, conservative Republicans are more closely linked to higher incomes than any other partisan group.) The median income in this country is around $48,000 for all households and around $60,000 for a family household. Low-skill high-school dropouts will typically make half that. Taking the Tea Party activists as an (obviously imperfect) proxy for conservative voters, only 8 percent of them make $30,000 or less.

The point I’m driving at here is that the Republican politicians most vociferous in their support of Arizona’s law fall about as far as you can get from representing the Americans who are actually effected by the negative consequences of illegal immigration. (What few there are.) If anything, you would expect such agitation to be coming from the Democrats. But it’s not.

This brings us full circle back to Lindsey Graham’s comments. Maybe support for Arizona’s draconian new law is the result of law-and-order absolutism, or economic selfishness, or (yes) racism, or maybe some more mercurial form of xenophobia that freaks out over the simple possibility of living in a country filled with people who don’t look, sound, behave or think like you. But the one thing we can say for sure is that this support isn’t based on any real-world effects of illegal immigration.

So no. Good people would not do this. They would not write or support this law. The very fact that so many Arizonans and Americans have been suckered by myths of illegal immigrant crime and wage competition is evidence of a massive moral failing. We can state this pretty much categorically.

Good people, when confronted with the problem of illegal immigration, would ask two questions: 1) How can we help these immigrants, as they are obviously in pretty desperate straights? And 2) How can we adjust the laws and infrastructure of our country to best absorb them – either permanently or temporarily – while placing a minimal burden on our citizens? I recognize the political limitations Lindsey Graham finds himself in, but the rest of us should not feel constrained to talk plainly about the moral implications of this debate. And how sad and shameful it is that pretty much no one in the American mainstream feels willing or even capable of framing the issue in these terms.

*UPDATE – Over at FiveThirtyEight, Tom Schaller has an intelligent argument that the 51 percent support for the new law may be more complicated than it appears:

What I suspect further polling will reveal is that a significant element of public support derives from a general empathy and encouragement Americans want to express toward Arizonans for doing something — anything — in the face of Washington’s continued foot-dragging. This is essentially the point — or, rather, one of the points — the highly-controversial Arizona anti-immigration icon Sheriff Joe Arpaio made this week: If nothing else, Arizona’s actions now force Washington’s hands. But that does not necessarily mean Americans favor rounding up and/or profiling people for deportation, or that they are xenophobic racists. Instead, some of them surely are tired of and frustrated by inaction on the national level, of more talk than action — and they approve of the fact that Arizona this week sent a shot across Washington’s bow, which it undoubtedly did.

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