Hispanics abandon Arizona, fleeing economy, immigration law

The bad economy was already leading thousands of Hispanics to leave Arizona. Now, anecdotal evidence suggests that more are leaving before the Arizona immigration law takes effect.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Newscom
Protesters demonstrate against the Arizona immigration law at a rally in Phoenix on May 29. Critics say the law could lead to profiling of Hispanics.

Arizona’s hard-hitting immigration law is driving Hispanics out of the state weeks before the controversial law goes into effect.

Although concrete figures are not available, anecdotal evidence suggests Hispanics, both legal residents and illegal immigrants, are starting to flee.

Schools in Hispanic neighborhoods are reporting abnormal enrollment drops, and businesses that serve Hispanics also report that business is down, according to a USA Today report published Wednesday.

The report suggests that the immigration law is compounding demographic trends that have already significantly curtailed illegal immigration during the past two years. The bad economy has been the primary deterrent to many Hispanic immigrants seeking to enter Arizona, says Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

“If you have a bad economy and a hostile environment, then that’s likely to cause people to think twice about coming, and possibly even to leave,” Mr. Passel says.

Arizona’s new immigration law requires that police conducting routine traffic stops or other checks ask people about their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that they're in the country illegally.

The law also makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally or to disrupt traffic when hiring day laborers, regardless of a worker's immigration status. It would also become a crime for illegal immigrants to solicit work.

Critics contend the law could lead to racial profiling of Hispanics. It could also force an exodus of scared immigrants – legal and illegal. Nearly 100,000 illegal immigrants left Arizona after it passed a 2007 law that penalized businesses that hired them, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The importance of the economy

Yet the economy is a far more powerful factor in immigration, says David Gutierrez, a professor of immigration history, at the University of California San Diego.

Arizona’s immigrant population, which is more than 90 percent Mexican, has already been leveling off for two years now, due to the recession.

“The economy is always the primary factor in determining migration flows,” says Professor Gutierrez. “It might appear as if these laws are turning back demographic tide in Arizona, but economic forces are a much more important aspect of that development recently.”

The Pew Hispanic Center reports a 40 to 45 percent drop in people coming to the US from Mexico, says Passel. That’s supported by data on border apprehensions, which have dropped 25 percent for two years in a row, he adds.

What’s more, more Hispanics have been leaving Arizona since the recession began.

A recent Census report suggests roughly 40,000 Hispanics left the state in 2008.

Leaving Arizona, going where?

Where are they going?

About 450,000 Mexicans return to Mexico from around the world, but “those numbers have been flat as a pancake for three years now,” Passel says.

It’s more likely, they’re migrating within the US, says Gutierrez.

“It’s got to be an exceedingly difficult decision [to leave],” he says. “Once they return to Mexico, it’s much harder to come back. It’s much more likely we’re seeing internal migration.”

Most Hispanics who flee Arizona will join friends, family, or other Hispanic communities in California, Texas, New Mexico, and other states with large Hispanic populations.

For his part, Gutierrez is skeptical of claims that the law will begin an exodus. “I don’t see a historical trend that has been in place for 100 years will be reversed because you’ve got a few hyper-conservative white legislators trying to turn back the clock, turn back the tides of history.”

Any loss, however, will be a loss for the Arizona economy, Gutierrez suggests.

“Latinos...are a highly flexible, highly exploitable work force, a buffer to economic downturns,” he says. “Many of the industries here – agriculture, service industries, low-end manufacturing, construction – are massively dependent on undocumented workers.

“If I were able to conduct an experiment and pay all of Arizona’s undocumented workers to not work for two weeks, the economy would come to a screeching, crashing halt instantaneously.”


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