How Arizona's Draconian Immigration Law Could Change the Entire Country

Arizona's immigration law has a good chance of being upheld by the Supreme Court.

Update, 4/25/12: Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on SB1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law. The final ruling, expected some time this summer, will reverberate nationwide. Back in December, we explained what's at stake.

The nation's harshest crackdown on illegal immigration, Arizona's 2010 SB1070, is scheduled to be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year. Recent decisions suggest that the odds are in the bill's favor, especially since Elena Kagan has recused herself because of her involvement in the issue as President Obama's solicitor general last year. The weight of the decision extends far outside of Arizona—its effects would reverberate across the country, affecting not only policy, but the way our country looks and acts.

The change is already happening, though the most incendiary parts of SB1070 have been indefinitely suspended by a federal judge (you can refresh your memory on the ins and outs of the bill here). Since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the measure, it's sparked national protests, a handful of copycat bills, a mass Latino exodus from Arizona, and a tidal wave of racially charged rhetoric in the political sphere. Judging by the last year and a half, those dynamics are only going to escalate. Here are some things we can expect if the Supreme Court gives SB1070 a thumbs-up.

States will pass copycat bills. Since June 2010, Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina have passed laws that mirror the provisions in SB1070. Alabama's law goes even further than Arizona's. In many cases, conservatives use these laws to score political points rather than to respond to an illegal immigration problem; undocumented immigrants only make up about 1.5 to 3 percent of Indiana's population, for instance, and even less of the workforce. But that's not to say these laws won't affect people's lives.

Immigrants will leave states with harsh laws—and the state's economy will go with them. After the heated battle over Arizona's law, surveys and anecdotal evidence found that Latinos began fleeing the state out of fear of persecution. The exodus included many people who weren't undocumented immigrants or even immigrants at all—entire families moved because one member lacked papers. A study released last year by BBVA Bancomer Research found that 100,000 Latinos left the state in 2010. The same thing happened in Alabama after the passage of HB56.

As a result, some businesses have had to close their doors because they've lost Latino customers and workers. Plus, these laws are expensive—and the state budget needs to cut somewhere to accommodate them. Arizona's tourist economy is also hurt by continuing boycotts, although this hasn't affected states with fewer attractions.

California, Texas, and New York will bear the brunt. These three states have been the major holdouts in the immigration debate, with their governments making it clear that they do not support measures like SB1070. Undocumented immigrants who feel intimidated by law enforcement will likely cross state borders to states with more moderate regulations.

Or immigrants may just stay in their home countries. Recent studies have found a sharp decrease in illegal immigration from Mexico, partly because economic and safety conditions are improving there. But harsher immigration laws here (and dismal unemployment rates) may have had a hand in deterring Mexicans from coming across the border. That's what politicians opposed to immigration wanted all along, despite the fact that undocumented workers do jobs American citizens refuse to take, and, in some cases, keep states' economies afloat.

Racial rhetoric will heat up even more. Perhaps the most resounding—and disturbing—result of the hoopla surrounding SB1070 is the ease with which xenophobia has taken the national stage. In 2010, polls showed people agreeing that SB1070 would ramp up racial profiling and dredge up racist attitudes. In last year's midterm elections, immigration issues were front and center in border states, and candidates didn't hold back from using fear-mongering language like "invasion" and "illegals." They didn't hold back from spreading lies and stereotypes, either: Brewer proclaimed that most illegal immigrants are smuggling drugs, and Sharron Angle portrayed them as violent criminals and gang members. These attitudes have resurfaced during the GOP primaries, and a Supreme Court decision siding with the legislation may only make it worse.

The court won't rule on Arizona's SB1070 until the summer, during the height of the 2012 campaign. Let's hope the candidates move past the rhetoric and have a real discussion about the effects of anti-immigrant policy in Arizona and the rest of the country.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

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