At the very end of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which governor Jan Brewer signed into law on April 23, there is a hopeful suggestion: “This act may be cited as the ‘Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.’”

Despite its proposed title, the law has the potential to hamper police work and make communities less safe. It requires police to verify the immigration status of the people they encounter when there is a “reasonable suspicion” that a person might be in the country illegally. Critics have objected to the unreasonably broad circumstances under which a person may be questioned by police, and noted that the law seems to invite harassment of Latinos. Supporters of the law have insisted that these complaints are baseless, even as they scrambled to draw up a follow-on bill that would amend some of the original legislation’s most egregious lapses.

In truth, the controversial law is not an honest effort to deal with Arizona’s immigration-related woes; it is a short-sighted attempt to curry political favor by preying on the fears and anxieties of voters. Arizonans have plenty to be anxious about, but indulging in a crude nativism won’t stop the flow of undocumented immigrants or prevent violent crime along the border.

No one knows exactly what the new law’s effect will be, but its most lasting legacy could be the renewed pressure it has brought on Washington to move ahead with immigration reform—a project both parties theoretically support but are reluctant to pursue. When President George W. Bush attempted it in 2006, he was opposed by his own party. President Barack Obama has said immigration reform is a major priority of his administration, but he now seems inclined to put it off until after the midterm elections. While the president focuses on foreign policy, the oil spill in the Gulf, and his next appointment to the Supreme Court, immigration is competing with financial reform and climate change for attention from legislators. Bipartisan cooperation is crucial for immigration reform, but difficult to count on in an election year.

In the absence of Republican support, several Democrats have moved ahead with their own “conceptual proposal” for reform. The plan put forth by Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) seems crafted to appeal to conservatives with its heavy emphasis on border security. But it wisely acknowledges that border control alone can’t address the economic and humanitarian aspects of immigration.

No immigration reform can succeed without confronting the underlying economic reality—the desperation of migrants looking for work (especially agricultural workers in Mexico, who have borne the brunt of NAFTA) and the industries in the United States that depend on their labor. Past efforts to stop illegal immigration have done too little to discourage U.S. employers from hiring undocumented workers. Recognizing that “jobs are what draw illegal immigrants to the United States,” the Democrats’ proposal recommends stricter penalties for those who employ illegal immigrants, and calls for the creation of “a new fraud-proof social security card” to make it easier to verify workers’ status. It also lays out a path to legal residency, involving strict guidelines and penalties, for some of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Such a program would be difficult to administer, and must be carefully structured to avoid creating an enticement for even more unauthorized border crossings. It would also be politically risky, since anything short of deportation is liable to be denounced as “amnesty.” But extending legal status to families that live and work in this country is both morally imperative and fiscally wise.

The Reid-Schumer-Menendez proposal also takes up the DREAM Act, legislation introduced in Congress last year (and several times before) to benefit young people who were brought into the country illegally as children. The DREAM Act creates a path to citizenship for high-school graduates who attend college or serve in the military for two years. It has broad bipartisan support and should be passed, if not as a component of broader reform then on its own.

Demonizing “illegals” is politically tempting, especially in a recession, when unemployment and resentment are running high. But laws like Arizona’s won’t make the country safer. And the problems of illegal immigration won’t go away without comprehensive reform at the federal level. The people who stand to benefit most directly can’t vote, of course, but all Americans will profit from a healthier economy and secure borders. Serious immigration reform is in everyone’s interest.

May 11, 2010

Related: The Editors on the 2006 effort: Immigration Reform
Jack Miles on immigration and the 2008 election: A Stirring at the Border
Joseph Sorrentino examines the effects of NAFTA on rural Mexico: ‘Está Perdido’
Ananda Rose Robinson on the crisis at the border: Borderline
I'm Not Dangerous by Danny Postel

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