Though several weeks have now passed since Governor Jan Brewer signed it, Arizona’s new immigration law — SB1070 — continues to be enormously controversial. The law, scheduled to go into effect on July 28, enables the state’s police to carry out spot checks on anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. If unable to provide authorized immigration documents, Mexicans can face fines, jail sentences and deportation. While most Arizonans have expressed support for SB1070, it’s a different matter among Americans on both sides of the border specializing in U.S.-Mexico affairs.

There is a wide range of views on both sides of the border about the law’s long-term impact. Some critics have denounced SB1070 as racist, warning that that it comes perilously close to laws introduced in Nazi Germany. They also argue that SB1070 could greatly damage intercultural and race relations in Arizona, while doing little or nothing to put a lid on illegal immigration.

"We must declare war on Arizona," wrote columnist Ricardo Rocha in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper. “Mexicans should boycott the state entirely: Do not buy its goods, do not travel there and do not attend its universities. Arizona’s abusive law resembles [those of] Nazi Germany, when Jews were terrified to take to the streets.”

For its part, Mexico’s center-right National Action Party of President Felipe Calderón has weigh in too, urging a boycott on tourism to Arizona. Meanwhile, on June 22, Mexico filed a formal request in U.S. federal court in Arizona, challenging the constitutionality of SB1070 and asking that it not be implemented. But the Mexican government is hardly in a position to denounce Arizona too severely at a time when the Obama administration shares its critique of SB1070. President Obama has said that the U.S. government will challenge the Arizona law in federal court, and municipal governments from Seattle to Baltimore have passed resolutions against the law, some even going as far as barring municipal employees from traveling to Arizona.

Meanwhile, “there are several views in Mexico about this law, and they are all negative,” says Rodolfo Cruz, a professor in the population studies department at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana, Mexico. “We can understand the position of those who want to boycott Arizona but the Mexican government’s position is not so tough because they have an interest in maintaining trade and economic relations with the U.S. government. Not one Mexican academic is saying that the Arizona law is a good idea, but some want the Mexican government to react by taking a more aggressive position on promoting the growth of better jobs in Mexico.”

South of the Rio Grande

When asked whether the law is racist, Ernesto Camou Healy, a researcher at CIAD, a research center for food and development in Hermosillo, Mexico, replies that while supporters of SB1070 deny that it is racist, the word is an “appropriate” description because the law grants police the right to determine the appropriate criteria for demarcating Mexican who appear suspicious to them from those who do not. “There are no other criteria in this context but accent, language, skin color and national origin of the person in question,” he says.

SB1070 "declares that people in Arizona with their immigration documents not in order — their passport, visa, permit, residency, etc. — are criminals and must be prosecuted” by local authorities, he says. “The penalties for this new crime are up to six months in jail and fine of $2,500.”

To ensure that undocumented workers are rounded up, continues Camou Healy, “the law will oblige state police to find and prosecute those without documents, and the police will be subject to sanctions if they do not do so.” In the past, the U.S. Border Patrol, a federal organization run separately from state or local police, has been responsible for rounding up illegal immigrants, he notes. Generally speaking, such officers “did not get involved with the immigration status of people, and they turned a blind eye to illegal informants. Governor Brewer affirmed that this measure was necessary because the federal government does not protect the border, and continually palms off undocumented workers to her state.”

Camou Healy also denounces Arizona Republican Senator John McCain for approving of SB1070 after spending years previously calling for the federal government to reform immigration law in ways that, in comparison, are more comprehensive and enlightened than Arizona’s. McCain "rejected what for decades were his principles and convictions, and he applauded this racist law. It remains to be seen how Latinos, who voted for him in the past, will vote for him in the next election,” the primary in August.

Debates aside bout whether the law is racist, one question concerning many observers is what the actual impact of the new law will be. John D. Skrentny, professor of sociology at the Center for Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, says he dislikes the new law but it may not have much effect on law enforcement. "Police officers in Arizona are already quite burdened," he says. "Their performance is measured by whether arrest rates rise and crime rates go down.” So while nearly three-quarters of Arizonans agree with the law, their support could wane quickly if crime rates increase after police officers spend a lot more time than they currently do questioning Mexican individuals, who look like they may be in Arizona illegally, but otherwise have no reason to be suspected of criminal activity.

SB1070 could also damage other initiatives by the Arizona police to eradicate crime by working more closely with the general public. “There’s been a big movement in Arizona to get the general public to cooperate with police,” says Skrentny. “But if there is a perception that by contacting the police when you have information about a crime and may then be deported to Mexico, it is less likely that you will contact them. For deeply entrenched cultural reasons, he says, most Mexicans have long been distrustful of the police, whether they are living in the U.S. or Mexico. A study by the University of Texas conducted several years ago, for example, found that many Latinos in the U.S. delay reporting a crime to the police out of fear of retribution from criminals and distrust of police officers.
“The perception of the law matters more than the actual law,” Skrentny says. “When you lose control of perceptions, there is an impact on society.” He notes that although surveys show some 80% of Latinos in Arizona oppose SB1070, there are no nuanced studies about the views of Latino communities to the law. Do they believe that the law will adversely affect the way they respond to police officers’ efforts to investigate crime? We simply don’t know, Skrentny says.
New Routes for Illegals
One likely result of SB 1070, says COLEF’s Cruz, is that it will change how illegal immigrants are entering the U.S. For nearly ten years now, Sasabe, a town in Arizona that shares a border with Sonora State in Mexico, has been the main entry point for illegal workers, have replaced Tijuana. After flying to Hermosillo – which is further inland — many illegal immigrants drive to the town of Anahuac near the border, where they hire smugglers to help them get into the U.S.
But now under the new law, while “the migration pattern will change if the Arizona law is enacted, but migration itself will not stop,” Cruz says. For Mexicans wanting to enter the U.S. illegally, “their first option will not be to come back to Mexico, but to go to other states, perhaps California. There is also a growing pattern of undocumented workers moving to Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.” At the moment, he adds, “Texas is not a good place for them to find jobs” because there are few positions in construction available in Dallas and Houston for illegals.
Although they dislike SB1070, Latino communities in cities in other states, such as California and Texas, for the moment are more or less unconcerned about Arizona’s immigration law, says Cruz, because they are not directly affected by it – at least not yet. However, there is a “general fear” that if such a law is enacted in Arizona, it could spread to other states with large Hispanic populations.
A Silver Lining?
Could SB1070 end up be an opportunity to gain political support for a long-delayed reform of federal immigration law in the U.S.? Don’t hold your breath, says Cruz. The government in neither the U.S. nor Mexico wants to spend much political capital on the immigration issue because “they are both more interested in other political issues. They know very well that immigration is a very controversial issue.”
They also seem to realize that legal reforms can only go so far to resolve illegal immigration, given the huge economic disparities between the U.S. and Mexico. “Migration is an economic problem, and Mexico cannot offer jobs for its whole labor force,” says Cruz. Until Mexico can deliver prosperity to a larger portion of its population – especially in the remote towns of its interior, he says illegal immigrants will continue to flow across the border, no matter what laws they have to break.