Arizona, Immigration, and Moral Panic

When I first heard of the controversy swirling around Arizona’s “draconian” new immigration law, I’ll admit I was skeptical. It’s not that I thought I would approve of the Arizona law (I tend to be of the view that immigration is a net benefit to America). But hyperbole is an all too common feature of political discourse, and I had to wonder whether the bill was really as harsh and wrongheaded as its critics were making out.

After reading the text of the bill, however, I have to say that, yes, it really is that bad. The bill would criminalize charitable activities directed at illegal immigrants, would making it a crime for an illegal immigrant to try to get a legitimate job, and, in an Orwellian twist, would make illegal immigrants guilty of trespassing for being on private property even with the owner’s permission.

The law also requires state officials to enforce federal immigration laws, effectively turning every Arizona cop into a part time border patrol agent. Arizona’s politicians may like the idea of having cops enforce the immigration code because it makes them look tough, but actual police tend to hate the idea, as it makes their job more difficult and forces them to take resources away from actual police work. (During the debate on the Bush immigration bill back in 2006, for example, the Major Cities Chiefs Associations came out against a requirement for state police to enforce immigration laws, arguing that doing so “undermines trust and cooperation with immigrant communities, which are essential elements of community oriented policing,” and would require scarce resources to be devoted to immigration enforcement rather than other, higher priorities).

And, mind you, the law doesn’t just empower state officials to enforce immigration laws. It mandates that they do so. Under the law, any citizen who feels the state or locality isn’t fully enforcing the immigration laws (perhaps because they are spending to much time trying to solve murders instead of raiding soup kitchens) can bring a lawsuit to force them to do so. Failure to fully enforce the law results in a $5,000 fine per day of noncompliance.

The main justification for the Arizona law seems to be that it is necessary to stop violent crimes, gangs, and drug dealing by illegal immigrants. Of course, most of the provisions of the bill have nothing to do with stopping drugs or gangs, and several would make it harder to do so (are illegal immigrants more or less likely to get involved with a drug gang if they can’t find legitimate employment?) A bigger problem with this argument, however, is that violent crime has actually been receding in Arizona in recent years. In 2008, for example, Arizona’s violent crime rate was lower than it had been since 1971, and the state’s murder rate was significantly below what it was for most of the 1990s (so were the rates for rape, burglary, larceny, aggravated assault, robbery, property crime, and auto theft). An FBI report from December compiling data for the first half of 2009 shows continuing declines. This is hardly surprising. As an article in the American Conservative (not a traditionally pro-immigrant outfit) noted just last month, illegal immigrants tend to be less likely to engage in criminal activity than other groups because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

It’s probably going too far to simply dismiss concern about immigration as an example of moral panic, but it does seem that the Arizona law is wildly out of proportion to any danger posed by illegal immigrants, and is misdirected to boot.

UPDATE: It appears that I may have linked to the wrong version of the bill text (at least, that’s according to Mark Krikorian at the Corner). The actual version of the bill that was passed does not appear to include the provision making it trespassing for an illegal immigrant to be on private property with the owner’s permission, but otherwise appears to the objectionable features of the Senate version. Indeed in at least one case it appears to be worse. Commenter Jonathan, for example, had argued that the bill would not criminalize the provision of charitable services to illegal immigrants because the anti-harboring provision said that it was illegal to “conceal…in violation of law” rather than simply saying “it is unlawful for a person to:…conceal.” The final version of the bill says the latter.

I apologize for the error.

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Black Adder

Monty rules!