The Universal Notebook: Arizona on my mind

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My brother-in-law Warren was here from Tucson last week for his annual homecoming visit. In one of the rare moments when he wasn’t eating Italian sandwiches (which you can’t get in Arizona) or body surfing (which you can’t do in Arizona) at Scarborough Beach, I asked him to explain Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, the hugely controversial anti-immigration law.

Warren is not a political animal, nor is he as liberal as I am, but his Arizona resident’s perspective on SB 1070 confirmed my own remote view of it – it’s just another bogus conservative initiative designed to rile up base Republicans.

SB 1070, Warren told me, is a convenient diversion from the fact that the economy and the education system in Arizona are in a mess. The state Legislature can’t do anything about real problems, so it manufactures phony ones.

Illegal immigrants are not a major problem in Arizona. Supporters of SB 1070 would have us believe that the state is overrun by illegals, beset by a crime wave, and the federal government won’t do anything about it. In fact, illegal border crossings are declining rapidly (right along with the U.S. economy), the violent crime rate in Arizona is the lowest it’s been since 1971 and the property crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1966.

Fortunately, SB 1070 arrived on the national stage already identified as a terrible idea. The federal government filed suit and a federal judge issued an injunction against its most draconian provisions. To begin with, SB 1070 would essentially mandate racial profiling, directing law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone stopped for any sort of infraction if they suspected they might be illegals.

Conservatives, who love to crow about the erosion of individual liberties, don’t seem to mind the idea of a police state as long as it doesn’t apply to them. But, of course, it would. How are you going to tell the legal from the illegal immigrants, the residents from the non-residents, the U.S. citizens from the foreign nationals unless you check everyone’s papers? Hey, and why stop in Arizona? Maine has an international border. How would you feel if Maine state police asked everyone with a Franco-American accent or surname to prove they are American citizens? Talk that over at your next tea party.

Just to confirm Warren’s assertion that illegal immigrants were not a problem in Arizona (they work hard at jobs American’s don’t want, keep their heads down, and don’t commit crimes), I checked in with my old friend Randy, who edits a newspaper in Flagstaff. Randy told me that the Flagstaff City Council has unanimously opposed SB 1070 as an unfounded state mandate. Newspapers in Flagstaff, Tucson and Phoenix have all editorialized against the measure. Even law enforcement officials are opposed to it, arguing that it would distract them from real issues and make it harder to get cooperation from the Hispanic community.

What all the wild complaints about the estimate 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. (500,000 in Arizona) usually fail to note is that the vast majority of those people entered the U.S. legally. What’s needed is comprehensive immigration reform, amnesty, and a path to citizenship for all those illegal immigrants who are necessary for the U.S. labor market. Even Arizona Sen. John McCain used to understand and support that, but now that there’s GOP political hay to be made bashing immigrants, he’s bashing away with the best (or worst) of them.

The worst, of course, is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. She was lukewarm on SB 1070 until she discovered it was an issue she could ride to re-election. Then she became Miss Anti-Immigrant 2010. But it looks now as though Brewer’s SB 1070 crusade may backfire. Turns out SB 1070 will greatly benefit the Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the company that runs private prisons in Arizona. And, oh by the way, two of Brewer’s top advisers worked for CCA; one a lobbyist, the other a publicist.

Why didn’t I think of that? It’s all about the money, as it usually is with conservatives. Pretend to be populist while you do the bidding of Corporate America. SB 1070 is not about illegal immigration or crime; it’s about filling privatized prison cells.

By the way, next time you see Gov. Brewer on television, see if she reminds you of anyone. To me, beneath that frosted bouffant, she’s a dead ringer for the Wicked Witch of the West.

Oh what a world! What a world!

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.