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Immigration bottom line, minus the rhetoric

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Immigration bottom line, minus the rhetoric

Until last week, this year's legislative session was proceeding more or less as usual. Senate Republicans introduced the expected package of new measures that would impose further prohibitions on the undocumented and their children. Their confidence was understandably high: Polls show that most Arizonans remain very concerned about illegal immigration.

But last week all five bills were rejected by the Senate, whose president, Russell Pearce, is their foremost champion. The vote wasn't even close, with nearly half of Republican senators voting against some of the measures.

What happened? Are Arizona's political leaders softening their stance against illegal immigrants? Has the ideological ardor that hurled the state into the national spotlight begun to wane?

Probably not. What instead happened was a rare triumph of rationality over emotion. In short, enough Republican senators were persuaded that it was both futile and dangerous to continue waging open warfare against the forces of economics and demographics.

It's not that they haven't tried. Since at least 2004, Arizona has enacted a series of measures expressly designed to drive undocumented residents away. Are they working? We don't know. True, recent Census Bureau numbers support other evidence that Arizona's population of illegal immigrants has dropped since 2007. But undocumented populations have dropped elsewhere as well, and virtually all experts blame most if not all of that drop on the recession. In addition, many undocumented Arizonans just ducked the census-takers last spring.

But statistical uncertainty didn't produce the surprising Senate votes. That happened because enough Republican senators were persuaded that, on the topic of immigration as in most others, the bottom line is the bottom line. That is, economics rules. The persuasion came in the form of an open letter sent to lawmakers last week from state business leaders.

"Last year, boycotts were called against our state's business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs," the business leaders wrote. "Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding. Sales outside of the state declined. … It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image."

The letter may have actually changed some minds on the Senate floor. More likely was that it provided essential cover for lawmakers to invoke when they confront the inevitable voter rage. If there's any cause that trumps even the anti-illegal immigrant fervor that's swept Arizona, "it's the economy, stupid." More than one angry senator from the losing side complained that the CEOs' true motive was to maintain a cheap supply of immigrant labor — and they are of course not wrong.

Illegal immigrants have been flowing into and through Arizona for generations because our major economic interests have invited them, openly or tacitly. Their influence has also discouraged even Arizona from seriously enforcing the employer sanctions law, arguably the most effective approach to reducing illegal immigration.

And we all know what will happen when our economy and our demand for labor revive. It's a fine example of the free market at work, and has nothing at all to do with "anchor babies" or "birthright citizenship."

Then there's demography. The recent Census Bureau estimates revealed that more of our children are now Latinos than are non-Hispanic Whites. Other numbers underline the message: One out of three Arizona children has at least one immigrant parent; in about 10 years, immigrants will account for a bigger share of new Arizona workers than native-born citizens; in about 15 years, non-Hispanic Whites will no longer form the majority of Arizonans. In about 40 years, the same will be true for the nation.

True, most Latino Arizonans are citizens or otherwise legal residents, many of whom are also concerned about illegal immigration. But most are considerably more balanced in their view of the issue, and many worry that they too, or family members or friends will be targeted by overzealous immigration enforcement. It has certainly happened before in the sorry history of U.S. immigration policy.

Large-scale illegal immigration is clearly a major public-policy question that demands serious e federal government, which should properly resolve this issue, has clearly failed to do so. But demonizing and harassing the undocumented with laws of questionable legality and impact make for fine politicking but little else. Doing so against the forces of economics and demography makes for an exercise in futility.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

William Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

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