Arizona immigration law: painful lessons from Oklahoma

Arizona may soon regret its new immigration law. Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2007 that deeply hurt its people and economy.

In late 2007, Oklahoma legislators enacted what was then the nation’s toughest anti-immigrant law. Mere months later, state Sen. Harry Coates – the only Republican legislator to vote against the measure – said, “You really have to work hard at it to destroy our state’s economy, but we found a way. We ran off the workforce.”

Perhaps the only upside of Arizona’s new, even harsher anti-immigrant legislation is for Oklahoma, where immigrants and citizens may flee as Arizona’s economy crumbles in the aftermath of its hateful legislative action.

Oklahoma HB 1804, passed in November 2007, cut off undocumented immigrants from state services and made it a crime for anyone, including citizens, to provide transport or assistance to undocumented immigrants.

One study suggests the bill led to an estimated 50,000 people fleeing Oklahoma and a 1.3 percent drop in economic output statewide. As a result, Oklahoma may well have incurred $1.8 billion in economic losses, just as it, like the rest of the nation, was bracing for recession.

That’s a steep price to pay for what even some proponents of the law have acknowledged is a rarely enforced, mostly symbolic measure that has the primary impact of creating a “culture of fear” for the state’s Latino community, both legal and nonlegal residents, causing not only economic harm but psychological pain as well.

It is this culture of fear that connects Oklahoma and Arizona. Both are states littered with crumbling farms and factories and aging populations who feel that any prospect of prosperity is passing them by.

But instead of building a 21st century global economy that works for everyone, Oklahoma and Arizona imagine that kicking out new immigrants will somehow turn the clock back 30 or 40 years, to some heyday that never really existed but, more to the point, could never exist again in our current context.

Immigrants who are stimulating our economy now come from Mexico and the Philippines, not Germany and Poland. Our greatest economic prospects lie in information technology, not corn or manufacturing. Exurbs and urban renewal lure young people to the coasts more than ever. But the reality is, that is nothing new.

Forty years ago, folks in Arizona and Oklahoma were complaining that the immigrants weren’t Irish or Scandinavian, and Tucson and Oklahoma City were luring kids from the countryside. Change is unavoidable. What we can avoid is reacting with irrational fear and scapegoating and hate.

Arizona’s new law will undoubtedly cause even greater economic losses in that state, given that it’s not only harsher, but Arizona has a larger immigrant population and the law is receiving greater national scrutiny. Kristen Jarnagin, spokesperson for the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association, noted that the state’s significant tourism industry “is certain to experience the unintended consequences of the economic backlash” from the passage of the new law, SB 1070. Already, immigrant rights groups and allies are calling for boycotts of the state.

In 2008, Arizona tourism brought $18.5 billion in revenues into the state. Even a slight dent in that income will be deleterious.

Arizonans are understandably focused on the need for immigration reform. The state is the main port of entry for new immigrants and, as in all states, the recession is putting financial limits on already-strained public services.

Arizona is stepping in to fill the gap left by the failure of Congress to pass workable immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship and moves us all forward together.

Extremist and hateful as Arizona’s law is, it may unfortunately be just the beginning of reactionary state lawmaking if Congress continues to stall.

The negative lessons that Oklahoma has learned, and which Arizona is about to learn, may not be enough to counter fanatical frustration in the face of federal inaction.

If you read the comments on local news websites and blogs where some angry and vocal native Arizonans express support for SB 1070, the professed need for self-defense often overshadows common human decency.

“If someone breaks in to your home, you have every right to shoot them dead,” wrote one poster on the Tucson Fox News affiliate’s website. “The USA is our home, why don’t we have the same right? Sounds extreme, but nothing seems to be working.”

But other than being downright hateful and inhuman, Oklahoma already learned the real impact of this attitude: You only end up shooting yourself in the foot.

Sally Kohn is Chief Agitation Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank.

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