By John Cheney-Lippold
Even before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the racist, anti-immigrant SB 1070 into law Friday, the climate around the debate on immigration in that border state had been saturated by politics. Plain old politics, the refuge of self-involved scoundrels who vote and act not for the greater good but for the greater length of their terms in office. Plain old politics, the world of white men and corruption and corporate pillow talk. Plain old politics, the ideological place from which we should expect a bill like SB 1070—one which legalizes the profiling of brown people, with or without documents and with or without cause—to spring, and to which it should be summarily thrown back. The public discourse surrounding the legislation has pointed out beyond a doubt its unconstitutionality, its waste of resources and its ultimately immoral standing.
Political opportunism has made a bad law a reality, as in so many of the critical political decisions that we have seen go awry in this country. “Everybody was afraid to vote no on immigration,” declared Republican state Sen. Bill Konopnicki in the most honest quotation I have heard from a politician in the past decade. The climate in Arizona proved terrifying enough to make every Republican legislator—even Konopnicki, who said he doesn’t even believe the bill will work—vote for it, as politicians prepare for re-election in the coming months. As far-right challengers attack Republican Party conservatives, more and more politicians are following in the footsteps of state senator and SB 1070 author Russell Pearce, darling of the discredited Minuteman movement and, until a couple of months ago, outlier of Republican ideology. The New York Times reports that while surveys show immigration to be less an issue than it was half a decade ago, many Republicans still wave their anti-immigrant banner and 82 percent of self-identified tea party advocates believe illegal immigration to be a “very serious” problem.
Brewer’s signing of SB 1070, after she waited four days and received thousands of phone calls pleading with her to veto the bill, clearly was tied to her intention not to be slandered as a “soft on crime” candidate and thereby lose re-election. More than a week ago Brewer was polling in a dead tie with two no-name GOP candidates (both of whom support SB 1070), speaking tepidly to Latino groups and blandly promising to “do what’s right for Arizona.” But a new Rasmussen poll has her climbing in popularity, and her lead is likely to increase as news of the signing circulates around right-wing water coolers. Of course, Brewer’s polling support comes from registered Republican primary voters, not Democrats, independents, those unable to vote, or the millions outside the state’s borders who are invested in such radical conceptions as equality and racial justice.
Its backers’ opportunism aside, SB 1070 is unconstitutional. The Arizona ACLU believes the bill will allow a brown-skinned individual with a Spanish accent and even with papers (if she forgets them at home) to be deported. Nor should we forget that immigration is, and must be, a federal issue, not something that falls under the auspices of overzealous state officials or some white-bread, wannabe A-Team (read: Minutemen). And what’s worse is that the new law offers Arizona police the capacity to arrest and deport if they have “reasonable suspicion … that the person is an alien,” rejecting any semblance of the Fourth Amendment, which, the last time I checked, still was in the Constitution.
The bill is also financially disastrous. With a $3 billion state budget deficit, one might think Gov. Brewer would have refused to enact a state program (to tea party members, this does mean bigger government) that recent estimates calculated would take away $26.4 billion from Arizona’s local economy. And one might think Brewer would have listened to the outcry of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, which only a week ago warned that SB 1070 would be too costly for local departments and would distract police officers from dealing with more serious problems—like actual crime.
Ultimately, the immorality of the bill is the most disheartening consequence that we now must endure. But unlike the above-noted plain old politics, a new people’s politics has held a constant voice to power’s ear and, through sites like ¡Alto Arizona! and groups like Border Action Network, has kept railing against both the political and moral implications of SB 1070. Ultimately we don’t need a cardinal to tell us SB 1070 is wrong (Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney compared the bill to policies of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia), nor do we need President Barack Obama to offer his opinion of how bad a bill 1070 is (he did, right before Brewer signed it into law). What we do need is a new politics of human rights, a politics that pushes us to think about immigration not as some xenophobic notion of infestation but as a new set of opportunities for both our country and those who come to it. Politics can stop SB 1070, but only politics in its most basic form: individuals holding power over our government, not just those in power who are vying for electoral supremacy. Politics allows us to right wrongs; lynchings, poll taxes and blacklists all are things of the past. Here’s to the struggle to put SB 1070 on that list.