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To immigrant rights activists, “S.B. 1070” is shorthand for racial profiling and anti-immigrant backlash. For others, the controversial Arizona law, which essentially compels police to arrest anyone of questionable immigration status, is a symbol of defiance against the invading hordes of cheap labor.
On either side, the law has spurred frenzied speculations that ultimately distract us from the core ethical question about how this country treats its newcomers. While the legislation wends through an ongoing legal battle, the actual impact of S.B. 1070 has proven tough to measure. Anecdotal news reports suggest that some families are retreating from public view, terrified of being targeted by police. Business owners serving the Latino community worry about losing business.
The speculation reached new heights recently when a business-oriented think tank declared that S.B. 1070 had sent Latinos fleeing Arizona en masse. But the report’s contention that tens of thousands of migrants have “gone back” is based on misleading data from a single program, which repatriates border-crossers after they’re caught on the Arizona side.
As Media Consortium’s Catherine Traywick and the Arizona Daily Star’s Brady McCombs point out, this data focuses on migrants in transit, not those who find their way into the workforce and put down roots north of the border.
Calculating the monetary cost of the law’s political fallout is somewhat more straightforward. According to the Center for American Progress, now that the law has “triggered a fierce, national public-opinion backlash against the state” and spurred boycotts nationwide, the law comes with a hefty price tag. The loss of revenues from canceled events and conferences will include:
$141 million in lost direct spending by convention attendees
• 2,761 lost jobs
• $86.5 million in lost earnings
• $253 million in lost economic output
• $9.4 million in lost tax revenues
There’s also the long-term cost of social services and lost income for immigrant households specifically when breadwinners get arrested or deported. Other studies outline the potential effects of such a drastic crackdown. According to a research brief by the Immigration Policy Center:
If all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Arizona, the state would lose $26.4 billion in economic activity, $11.7 billion in gross state product, and approximately 140, 324 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time, according to a report by the Perryman Group.
But the political meaning of S.B. 1070 isn’t just about taxes and profits. The law’s most disruptive impact so far has been on the discourse surrounding immigration reform. The law is already inspiring copycat legislation providing a model legal scaffold for politicians’ opportunistic immigrant bashing and reactionary rage.
While it may not be a good starting point for a demographic analysis, the real controversy around SB 1070 is about labor and economic anxieties. Ironically, economic volatility is a far more relevant factor shaping migration rates in and out of the country, as we’ve seen with the recent declines. When studies overemphasize law enforcement as an influence on people’s decisions to migrate, they downplay the reality that no amount of mass deportations would alter the structural forces that exploit the migrant workforce.
The exodus argument may in fact inadvertently validate anti-immigrant groups’ belief that a harsh crackdown is an effective “solution.” The restrictionist organization FAIR, for instance, calls for reducing undocumented population through “attrition,” which combines the deportation-enforcement dragnet and withholding of any social support like education or health care. Their logic is that if you can’t deport them all at once, you can wipe them out by making their lives in America intolerably miserable.
Marc Rosenblum, a policy analyst with the centrist think tank Migration Policy Institute, noted that a rigid enforcement-only approach is unsustainable in a dynamic economy. Even if get-tough immigration policies do push people to leave Arizona, he told In These Times:
We know that immigrant labor markets and regional labor markets are very dynamic. … [A]t some point, the economy’s going to recover, and job growth is going to resume, and families will have money to finance their relatives’ trips. So the underlying demand for addressing structural flaws in the immigration system remains in place. Even if we put [in place] an enforcement infrastructure… that reduces immigration in the current economy, that wouldn’t be a meaningful prediction of how system’s going to work in the future economy.
The dangerous thing about this perverse “starve-the-beast” approach is that it while it’s nearly impossible to prove its effectiveness, it allows the right to frame the debate with rhetoric that is polarizing, dehumanizing and terrifying to immigrant workers.
Why does every debate on immigration revolve around forcing migrants to justify their very existence against a rhetorical war of attrition? When immigration reform again resurfaces again on Capitol Hill, in an even more challenging political landscape, there will be a chance to start over with the premise that no one deserves to be displaced and dispossessed by the abusive enforcement of broken laws.
Sure, it may be useful in some cases to show that anti-immigrant laws are “bad for business.” But they’re also bad for our humanity, because they force us to judge neighbors and coworkers in sheer material terms. Whether its one immigrant or a thousand who flee, what does that departure say about the integrity of our communities? Fewer tax dollars? One fewer construction worker? Or one fewer ballot cast, or a child’s missing playmate, or another vanished domestic violence victim?
No community ever grows stronger by pushing people out when it could include them instead. How many are we willing to lose?
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.