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The failure of Congress and two presidents to enact immigration reform is plunging the nation into an ugly future. Call it the Arizonification of America.
Quite apart from the ghastly shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and 19 others in Tucson, Ariz., the state truly has become, as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described it, “a mecca for racism and bigotry” — largely over immigration.
It has become a state of Minuteman vigilantism, death threats against politicians and judges, talk-radio demagoguery, and bullying of Latinos and rival politicians by “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.
Now, governors and legislators in 23 other states are considering following Arizona’s lead in directing local police to act as immigration officers. And politicians in several states are contriving to, in effect, amend the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. if their parents are illegal immigrants.
All this represents a high-water mark in the influence of the “nativist lobby” — a richly funded assemblage of national and local groups organized by Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton.
The groups, which have gained respectability, include the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA. But some investigations have tied Tanton to white-supremacist ideology as well.
The move to end birthright citizenship is led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is affiliated with FAIR’s legal arm.
Tanton’s groups are making use of economic hard times to argue that immigrants — legal and illegal — are stealing jobs from Americans and straining government budgets. It’s largely bogus because immigrants tend to take jobs that Americans won’t or can’t do and because illegal workers pay taxes but can’t get benefits.
If Congress had acted on immigration reform under President George W. Bush — it failed by five votes in 2007 — or if President Barack Obama had pushed it in his first year in office, as he promised, it might have included “impact aid” for communities with large undocumented populations.
In the present climate, attacks on illegal immigrants by radio talk-show hosts, politicians, vigilantes — and Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 — invite profiling of Latinos in general, giving the trend a racist tinge.
As immigration reform advocate Rick Swartz told me: “There’s a long history in our country of demonizing ‘the other’ — Catholics by the Know-Nothings, Chinese, blacks, Jews. Americans ought to fear we’re in another one of those periods now.”
Polls show that 60 percent of Americans support Arizona’s police enforcement law but that just as many support giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But GOP victories in 2010 will make it impossible for Congress to address the immigration problem constructively.
The prospect is for harsh enforcement measures to be considered in the House, then get blocked in the Senate or vetoed by Obama, producing continued federal stalemate — and state activism.