One of the most draconian immigration laws has just been signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. The bill reflects the fact that different parts of this country have different vital interests and different views on big national issues like immigration. With anti-immigration politicians in places like Arizona grabbing the headlines, it's even more important that the Midwestern voice be heard on immigration policy.
The bill would require police to demand proof of legal entry into the United States from anyone suspected of being here illegally. Citizens could sue police departments that didn't enforce the law. The potential for racial profiling is obvious: any Hispanic who left all his legal papers at home could find himself across the border by nightfall.
I can't speak for the people of Arizona. The state lies on the Mexican border and apparently has been an increasingly important entry point for undocumented immigrants crossing the frontier. It's an emotional issue there, especially since the killing of an Arizona rancher by an apparently illegal immigrant.
Democrats there by and large oppose the new, tougher bill: so do most police chiefs, whose association issued a statement saying that the need for policemen to enforce the immigration law will hurt their ability to stop more important crimes. But the bill passed the Arizona Senate with unanimous Republican approval. A local poll shows that 70 percent of Arizona voters approve it. Some 82 percent of Tea Party members like it. Radio pundit Glenn Beck has called for armed militias on the border to start shooting at immigrants. And even Sen. John McCain, once a leader in immigration reform, has come out in favor of the bill.
Immigration -- especially illegal immigration -- is an emotional and political issue everywhere. Perhaps immigrants really add nothing to the culture and economy of Arizona. But in this issue, Arizonans do not speak for Midwesterners. With anti-immigrant fervor running amok in Arizona, Midwestern leaders need to look at what immigrants do for this region and state their own case for more -- not less -- immigration.
Everywhere, the Midwest is losing population. It is especially losing young people, and the native population ages. It is losing workers and taxpayers and shoppers. The future of the Midwest literally depends on drawing in as many immigrants as possible -- both PhDs from India and workers from Mexico. This may not be true for Arizona, Texas or California. But it's true for the Midwest.
Midwestern cities that are thriving are the ones drawing in immigrants. Chicago has 1.5 million Hispanics, about 80 percent of them Mexican. Minneapolis has Mexicans, plus Somalis, Hmongs, Sudanese and other nationalities. These immigrants have saved these cities, bringing not only bodies and hands, but culture, color and entrepreneurial drive. In Chicago, the second busiest shopping street, after Michigan Avenue, is Twenty-Sixth Street, down the middle of the city's biggest Mexican neighborhood.
The region's poorer cities, by contrast, have almost no immigrants. Cleveland, once 50 percent foreign born, is now 4 percent. Two Cleveland authors, Richard T. Herman and Robert L. Smith, have written a good book called Immigrant, Inc. describing the entrepreneurial fervor that immigrants bring with them. Herman has been beating the drum for years for more immigration into Cleveland. He knows that immigrants are both cause and effect of a vibrant economy: they come to cities because there are jobs and opportunities there and, once there, they create more jobs and opportunities.
In rural areas, most towns are shrinking, even disappearing. The exceptions often are meat-packing towns -- Marshalltown, Iowa, or Beardstown, Illinois, or Wilmar, Minnesota -- where immigrants have come to work in the packing plants. As in the cities, these little towns owe their present and their future to immigrants.
Not that it's been easy, nor uncontroversial. The immigrants have put burdens on housing, police, hospitals, city services. They are an alien presence in towns that once were close-knit and all-white. They've taken jobs once held by locals. Most important, the majority of these immigrants are undocumented and their very presence mocks the standards of the law-abiding citizens of these little towns.
Not surprisingly, there's been a backlash here. Iowans, who may not have a future without immigrants, forced former Gov. Tom Vilsack (now the Secretary of Agriculture) to abandon a campaign to increase immigration into Iowa. Two of the most virulent anti-immigration members of Congress, Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner and Iowa's Steve King, are both Midwesterners: Sensenbrenner's district contains few immigrants, King's has a lot. Individual towns, like Carpentersville in exurban Chicago, have tried to crack down on immigrants. A raid by immigration agents on a kosher packing plant in Postville, Iowa, highlighted the failure of government as well as employers.
But many people in Iowa and Wisconsin consider Sensenbrenner and King an embarrassment. Neither speak for their states or the Republican party in their states. Carpentersville has since cooled off.
Accusations that immigrants cause crime lack the facts to prove them. In a column in the Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman pointed out that crime in Arizona has actually gone down, not up -- and by about 20 percent -- as the immigrant population grew. The reason, Chapman said, is that an immigrant, especially one here illegally, tries hard not to do anything, like committing a crime, that will draw a policeman's attention. Immigrants, in short, have a big incentive to obey the law.
This hasn't stopped the demagogues from floating phony statistics. An Arizona sheriff named Paul Babeu, one of the relatively few lawmen there who support the new law, claims that "we've had numerous officers that have been killed by illegal immigrants in Arizona." Chapman called his office and found that the "numerous" was actually one.
Iowa's King has claimed that illegal immigrants murder 12 Americans every day and kill another 13 in drunk-driving cases. That's more than 4,700 every year, an imaginary crime wave that has been laughed down by every critic who checked it out.
The fact is that, for all these pockets of opposition, no Midwestern state seems likely to even consider a law like the one passed by the Arizona Senate. Most Midwesterners, including most Midwestern politicians, know that the region's future depends on immigrants and aren't likely to sponsor bills that threaten that future.
Which makes it vital that the Midwest -- its politicians, its civic groups, its congressional delegations -- frames a coherent policy for immigration reform that meets the region's needs.
Such a policy would recognize that the current U.S. immigrant policy is broken, that it criminalizes millions of persons who have to break the existing law to do what previous generations of immigrants have done, which is to come here to give their families a chance at a better life. Amnesty would be part of this: there is simply no way that the millions of illegal immigrants already here are going to be sent back and keeping them submerged in a legal limbo violates both decency and sense. Quotas need to be multiplied or lifted: there are employers here who want workers and workers there who want jobs. The Midwest should be flattered that there are so many people who want so desperately to join our society that they risk their lives to get here.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs published a task force report in 2004 called "Keeping the Promise: Immigration Proposals from the Heartland." It urged reform that realigned the law "with national needs, adjusting to the economic changes of the last decade and responsive to future trends and social realities." Six years on, it remains a sensible guideline to future policy.
President Obama promised immigration reform but a few other matters -- health care and the recession among them -- have got in the way. Now Hispanics, like the tens of thousands of immigrants who rallied in Washington in March, are getting impatient. So should the Midwest. After all, the Midwest voted as a bloc for the Obama-Biden ticket, and Hispanics overwhelmingly did the same. Both the region and its immigrants have a right to demand action on an issue of such vital interest to them both.