Arizona has a good case for its tough new law aimed at shrinking the number of illegal immigrants in the state.
One might not think so, given the uproar. The National Council of La Raza and 19 labor and civil rights groups have organized a boycott to keep meetings and conferences out of Arizona. St. Paul, Minn., and San Francisco have banned official city travel. City councils in Oakland, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; and Boston have all passed resolutions to pull business from the state or ban official travel by city employees. California is also considering a statewide boycott.
Much of the fuss comes from critics who want "open borders rather than sovereign borders," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, urging greater restraints on illegal immigration – and lower legal immigration. But given the nearly 6.5 billion non-Americans in the world and the tens of millions of those who would rather live in the United States, limits must be placed on immigration or the nation would be swamped with foreigners.
Most Arizonans and Americans feel that way on the whole. A poll shows 70 percent of Arizona voters approve of the law, 23 percent oppose it. A New York Times/CBS poll finds 51 percent of Americans see the law as "about right" and 30 percent figure it "goes too far." Arizona's original law was amended to prohibit "racial profiling."
Sitting on the Mexican border, Arizona has a tough illegal-immigrant problem. That population grew from 330,000 in 2000 to 560,000 by 2008. Some 95 to 98 percent of those are Hispanic, says Mr. Krikorian. Of these, at least 60 percent are Mexican, about 20 percent from Central America.
Earlier state action regarding illegal immigrants, plus a recession, have already cut their number by perhaps 18 percent between 2008 and 2009 to about 460,000. Nationwide, the number of undocumented immigrants has shrunk from an estimated 12.5 million in 2007 to under 11 million now, estimates Krikorian.
But just because the illegal population is slipping is no reason to ignore the problem. For example: Krikorian's analysis finds that illegal immigrants commit modestly more crime than average in Arizona. About 12 percent of workers in the state are illegal. They and their legal US-born children (under 18) make up a fifth of those living in poverty in the state, a third of those without health insurance, and a sixth of school students.
Arizona acted because Washington has not tackled illegal immigration seriously. A fence is going up across the 700-mile border with Mexico. For most of its length, though, it may stop vehicles, but not people. "Grandma could jump across it," says Krikorian. Republicans promise to introduce bills to strengthen the fence. Democrats are less enthusiastic about measures to deter illegal immigration, tending instead to push for amnesty legislation. Hispanics tend to vote Democratic. But several earlier amnesties have only served to foster more illegal immigration.
Krikorian expects Congress to hold hearings but take no real action until after the presidential election. That leaves states to take the lead.
Legislators in a dozen states have introduced or plan to introduce Arizona-style laws. And the Coalition for the Future American Worker, an umbrella group of mostly immigration-reform groups, is running TV ads showing an unemployed man urging President Obama to enforce existing immigration law to trim unemployment.
Arizona's immigration reform is gaining allies.