I arrived in Phoenix for a visit with family on Friday and was somewhat surprised that I didn't see the Gestapo checking papers at the Arrivals gate at Sky Harbor. For the last couple of weeks all the news about Arizona led me to believe a scorpion-infested police state was rising up over the desert sands.
As a former resident of the Grand Canyon State, I haven't know quite what to think or feel about SB1070, the controversial new illegal immigration law. My left side is profoundly sorry for Hispanic Americans, legal and otherwise, caught up in this mess. My right side thinks it's about damn time.
Outside the state, the consensus view goes something like this: illegal immigration isn't really a problem; illegals come here to work hard at those jobs Americans emphatically refuse to do and pay more into the social system than they ever get out of it; white Arizonans are just a bunch of nasty old bigots who refuse to accept the wonderful diversity of our national melting pot and should just hurry up and die, already.
And there's an element of truth to this view.
But the flip side of the argument -- the one nobody seems to want to talk about -- is that the current system does nobody any favors.
- It's unfair to the undocumented workers who are forced into the hands of unscrupulous coyotes or into dangerous desert crossings, only to be paid pathetically low wages and to live as a member of an underclass.
- It's unfair to Hispanic Americans who come here legally, but are constantly lumped in with those who are flouting the laws.
- It's unfair to legal American workers who might take those jobs absorbed by the undocumented. (Are there really jobs Americans wont do? Or are there just jobs Americans aren't willing to do for less than $7 an hour?)
- It's unfair to business owners who want to play by the rules, but can't compete with less honest employers who are happy to pay undocumented workers a pittance under the table.
- It's unfair to the public at large, for while 99% of illegal immigrants are peaceful and productive shadow citizens, that 1% who are not can do a hell of lot of damage
The outrage over SB1070 seems to stem from a set of rosy isconceptions about who we are as a nation.
"Racial profiling is un-American." There may be a few enlightened beings out there who don't, but most of us racially profile every day of our lives. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, law enforcement or civilian, we all harbor race-based assumptions that affect how we interact with others. It's not wrong to want to hold the state to a higher standard, but we also have to accept that it may not be possible. Nobody is color-blind.
"America is a nation of immigrants, and this law goes against our tradition of embracing diversity." It's fine to get all misty-eyed about my Irish great-granny or your Italian grandpa, but, in reality, the only group that every arrived in America without raising hackles were the first peoples who crossed the Bearing Sea and filtered into the un-peopled continent. Out history is riddled with actions against newcomers that make SB1070 look like a walk in a dewy spring meadow. Xenophobia is one of those things that seem to be hard-wired into humanity. Americans are no different that any other nation, region, religion, or tribe. We fear the outsider. At best, we should strive to factor this bias into our immigration policies to make them more fair to those who want to build a life here.
"Illegal immigrants should just be left to work in peace." This, to me, is the most inhumane assumption. Studies show that that illegal workers earn $27,000 a year if they're lucky. More than they could earn at home, but poverty wages relative to the cost of living in the U.S. today. Most are ghettoized or transient. Many are forced to work in unsafe conditions, with a high number suffering injuries and far too many killed. And there are uncounted thousands in this country who may look like undocumented workers but are, in fact, slaves....their owners hiding behind our national paralysis in dealing with illegal immigration.
So, by all means, boycott Arizona is you feel SB1070 if you feel it's an offense to the nation. Stew in your moral superiority. Then come up with something better. Something that allows all who come here to live in dignity.