Slash, Cut, and Burn

rewriting immigration–and the constitution–in Arizona

by by Emily Gogolak

illustration by by Annika Finne & Becca Levinson

Almost one year has passed since Arizona sent the nation into an uproar over its controversial anti-immigration law. The most radical attempt at immigration reform in American history, the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” or Senate Bill 1070, gave unprecedented autonomy to local law enforcement, declared the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrations to be official state policy, and was largely said to encourage racial profiling. This sent critics into a tailspin and Arizona into the dregs of national—and world—opinion. Boycotts followed, tourism and convention business faltered, and lawsuits ensued soon after, including one by the Obama administration. Eleven months later, the state finds itself in an even worse moral light.

While states across the nation are working urgently to reboot their economies, fight job insecurity, and turn around faltering budgets, Arizona is setting its sights elsewhere: introducing a new wave of immigration restriwctions. The most recent development in Arizona’s immigration debate introduces a series of nativist bills that make even SB1070 look mild. Dubbed the “omnibus” measure by Arizona Senate President Russel Pearce, the sweeping reform package would repeal the Fourteenth Amendment (which defines national citizenship and forbids states to restrict the basic rights of citizens), prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public school, and deny medical care to undocumented immigrants in Arizona.

The new bill, SB1611, was passed in the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 22. Pearce, a Republican from the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, said he sees the new measure as a simple way to strengthen a 2004 voter-approved measure denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants. Pearce, who wishes to be known as the “John Wayne of immigration policy,” announced: “If we’re going to stop this invasion—and it is an invasion—you’re going to have to stop rewarding people for breaking those laws… I make no apology for demanding the taxpayers be protected.’’ He specifically defended the legislation that would bar illegal immigrants from free access to public education and medical services: “You can’t keep incentivizing people to break our laws with a wink and a nod and think you’re going to have any effect on securing that border,” he said.

Just how much the bill would protect the border and taxpayers remains unclear. The new initiative looks less like an effective solution to illegal immigration – undeniably a critical problem in a state that is home to over 500,000 undocumented people – than an attempt to devalue the very rights of the Americans Pearce seeks to protect. Arizona is entering a moment of constitutional subversion, and with huge consequences.

Looking at the issues: kids, classrooms, and care
The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War to grant citizenship, protect citizen’s rights, and guarantee due process to the American-born children of emancipated slaves. Radically reinterpreting the amendment’s section on birthright citizenship, Arizona would issue a different type of birth certificate to newborns with undocumented parents.
The Fourteenth Amendment has become a cornerstone of our heritage as an immigrant nation. And this is the very paradox of the Arizona effort: in claiming to promote Americanism, it is decidedly un-American in its character. Birthright citizenship is embedded in our constitution, and Arizona’s efforts have been met with public outcry. In a statement in Washington, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, announced, “For the first time since the end of the Civil War, these legislators want to pass state laws that would create two tiers of citizens, a modern-day caste system.”

The bill also seeks to shake up undocumented children’s enrollment in public school. In doing so, Arizona’s leaders are attempting to overturn a 1982 Supreme Court ruling on the right of undocumented children to primary education. In Plyer v. Doe, the Court declared it unconstitutional to deny education funding to undocumented immigrants. Simultaneously, the ruling struck down a municipal school district’s practice of charging each illegal alien student an annual $1,000 tuition fee to compensate for the lost state funding. While SB1611 would still allow undocumented children to attend school, it would legally require the students to report their families’ immigration status to local law enforcement and to the Department of Education. The danger of this measure lies in the possibility that immigrant families—in fear of deportation—will be too afraid to send their children to school, perpetuating an uneducated underclass of deportable young people. 

A former member of the American education taskforce at the Gates Foundation—who currently works in philanthropy in Arizona and wished to remain unnamed—said in an interview with the Independent, “We would end up with tens of thousands of uneducated young people... The social costs would be mindblowing.” It’s likely that the law would only exacerbate crime—ironically, as fighting is one of the main rallying calls among anti-immigration hardliners supporting SB1611. Not only would government agencies and local authorities have to monitor students’ citizenship, but SB1611 would force school officials themselves to check for papers, turning teachers into immigration officers. The Arizona philanthropist decried this scenario: “As an educator, it is my job to educate, not to check for papers. Every child has the right to an education. That is a universal right in this country, and borders have no relevance to this right or to my job.”

Along with classrooms, Arizona’s emergency rooms would also become “papers-please” environments. Hospital personnel would be required to check patients’ immigration status and report to federal officials, distracting physicians from performing their real jobs: providing care to people who need it. Dr. Bob Baron, an emergency medicine specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, said in an interview with the Independent, “There is a real political problem with immigration, but this law is absurd. I can’t serve two masters. My duty is to my patients, to provide the best medical care I can to who really needs it, and not to be an INS agent. And in checking papers,” he paused, “I could be wrong! I must focus on what I know, and that’s the medicine ... My job is tough enough with just the medicine. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.” Although emergency cases would be allowed to receive care before their citizenship is checked, the measure would likely make immigrants avoid hospitals in fear of deportation.

If the bill passes, it would not only harm undocumented immigrants themselves, but also the community at large. “I know that people will not come in,” says George Pauk, a retired doctor with the Arizona Coalition for a State and National Health Program of emergency room patients. “They will stay away, and people with communicable diseases that affect us all may even stay away and be out there,” he told Fox News. When the bill runs contrary to its proponents’ own supposed goal to protect American citizens, what’s the real incentive of Arizona’s legislatures?

And our point is…
Some have suggested that Arizona’s elected officials are proposing radical immigration restrictions in order to get the attention of the federal government. Illegal immigration is a crucial problem in the state, and it is about time—they say—that Washington makes it a priority, provides funding, and recognizes the burden it puts on border states. Alternatively, Arizona’s staunch stance on undocumented immigration could be the byproduct of an intense xenophobia within parts of the state. As the unnamed philanthropist said, “Maybe the leaders are doing this because they identify with the ‘we want these people out of here’ [sentiment]—they simply want to kick them out.”

SB1611 is another iteration of a state’s rejection of strong national government, taking matters into its own hands; and, at the end of the day, the omnibus may have more to do with rising anti-government political ideology than with illegal immigration itself. Arizona leaders are not only revoking constitutional rights for undocumented immigrants, but they are also cutting back on public services for citizens across the board. Recently the legislature passed cuts on the maintenance and construction of public bathrooms and rest stops on state highways. Public education and healthcare have seen massive funding setbacks. Under last year’s budget, the AZ state legislature cut $1.1 billion in spending from education – an effort to remedy the $2.6 billion projected budget deficit for the 2011 fiscal year. 

Kindergarten funding has lost $218 million, and over the past three years, over $100 million has been slashed from higher education. Taxes, meanwhile, remain unaffected, as the state fails to consider the overarching structural picture of its economy: cutting public programs alone cannot solve Arizona’s budget crisis, and the government would benefit from select low-cost, high-yield taxes (e.g. on items like milk and services like haircuts). The current measures are making Arizona progressively less competitive and are tearing down an infrastructure that Republicans and Democrats have worked together to build in the 100 years since the young state’s founding. In addition to its history as a tourist, convention business, and sports mecca, the state has become a center for the international Bio-Medical, IT, and alternative energy industries. By the end of this year, it will house the largest solar plant in the world. And Arizona, with its capital Phoenix, now boasts the fifth most populous city in the nation. In an interview with The Independent, Arizona Democrat Jon Hulburd said, “This is sending Arizona down the wrong path.” Hulburd was the 2010 Democratic nominee for 3rd Congressional District and lost the race to Republican nominee Ben Quayle, the son of former Vice President Dan Qualyle. With the ethical and employment implications of its immigration restrictions, fewer and fewer out-of-state businesses will want to expand to or invest in Arizona. “What Fortune-500 company is going to want to do business in what they see as a rogue state with a bunch of rednecks[?]” Hulburd said. “This is going to hurt us, badly.”

SB1611 will move to the Arizona Senate this week. Its passage would send the bill to the House, and then into the law books and onto the streets. While the omnibus does face mass opposition, especially from the medical, business, and education communities, what is important to remember is the state reaction to SB1070: according to pollsters last April, 70% of Arizona voters – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike – supported the bill. When political players like Pearce see this newest package as the logical extension of 1070, its passage could be likely. Hulburd said, “Politically and constitutionally, the law doesn’t fit. But it really could go either way.” And the stakes are high. What’s at risk is not only the state’s image, but also a fundamental transgression of a national value system, and citizens and non-citizens alike have reason to fear. Arizona’s exceptionalism is not only unprecedented, but it is also unconstitutional. Drastically rewriting the core values of the country does nothing but harm for Arizona—and the American ethos at large.

EMILY GOGOLAK B’12 is an Arizonan.