Conservatives argue their opposition to illegal immigration is about not about race, but rather enforcing the law. Just like Jim Crow. (More)

The Not-About Race, Part II: Immigration

This week Morning Feature explores the influence of race in the 2012 elections. Yesterday we examined how government is framed in race. Today we look at the racial politics of immigration. Tomorrow we’ll consider how to discuss race and privilege with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

“We are not racist!”

So Arizona Governor Jan Brewer proclaimed last November on MSNBC. The topic, not surprisingly, was her state’s draconian immigration law. That state law was not about race, Brewer insisted, but about enforcing federal immigration statutes. Those who disagreed wanted to “shove that race card out there.”

Cameron Smith of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute echoes the same argument in defense of that state’s new immigration law. Rebutting a New York Times op-ed criticizing Alabama law, Smith writes:

The Times’ piece on Alabama’s immigration law calls for President Obama “to show stronger leadership in defending core American values in the face of the hostility that has overtaken Alabama and so many other states.” Other commentaries have likened Alabama’s immigration enforcement to the Jim Crow era where the evils of racism were given the force of law.

But is Alabama really such a cruel and inhospitable place that those who abide by the rule of law fear for their safety and economic security? Have Alabamians failed to learn from a tragic racist past such that they are willing to once again pass laws designed to penalize individuals based solely on the color of their skin? Or … have the majority of Alabamians simply had enough of the law being trampled right in front of their eyes?

Perhaps Smith didn’t intend the irony. The National Review made the same argument after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:

For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes – particularly the adolescents and the children – that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice.

It’s never about race, you see.

“It’s just law enforcement!”

That argument would be more convincing if law enforcement were uniformly just. But as Tim Wise eloquently argues:

After all, as my experience in the car demonstrated, violating minor traffic laws is something we all do regularly. Had the officer outside the restaurant decided to stop me, rather than continuing to eat his Scottish-named egg sandwich, he would have been perfectly within his rights to do so. The contact would have been lawful, even if a bit nit-picky. In Arizona, under the new law, officers who saw drivers they perceived as Latino/a, and who wanted to stop them, need only pick out some minor infraction (the kind we all commit every time we pull out of the driveway), and then use the infraction as an excuse for a stop the real purpose of which was to determine the lawful status of someone whose only reason for being stopped was their perceived ethnicity.

In fact, the law doesn’t even require a moving violation. Because SB 1070 includes municipal code violations as a legitimate reason for “legal contact” by officers, police would be able to use everything from failure to cut one’s grass often enough, to having too many cars in the driveway, to placing one’s garbage containers in the wrong spot on the street, as reasons for a stop and document search.

That is not a groundless hypothetical. Wise alludes to the widespread phenomenon called “driving while black” or, in immigration cases, “driving while brown.” While only 77% of America’s illegal immigrants are Latino, fully 93% of those deported under the Secure Communities program – after being arrested on some other charge – have been Latino. And last month, the Department of Homeland Security cut off Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s access to the Secure Communities program, after a two-year Department of Justice investigation found his office “committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including a pattern of racial profiling and discrimination and carrying out heavy-handed immigration patrols based on racially charged citizen complaints.”

When law enforcement is racially unjust – and it often is – “it’s just law enforcement” becomes a mere cover for laws that privilege whites and disadvantage Others. The conservative argument then takes a different tack:

“They’re taking our jobs!”

In a 1999 Journal of Politics article, professors Jack Citrin, Donald Green, Christopher Muste, and Cara Wong examined Public Opinion Toward Immigration Reform: The Role of Economic Motivations. Specifically, they explored the perceptions that immigrants take jobs from and/or depress the wages of American citizens, and that states and municipalities must spend more to provide services for and protection from immigrants than immigrants pay in taxes.

Surprisingly, their study found low-income workers and people living in areas with more immigrants – i.e.: those most likely to be affected by immigrants – were neither more likely to fear job competition nor more likely to believe immigrants take more from than they contribute to society. Yet the authors found that economic downturns historically correlate to harsher immigration policies. How do they explain these seemingly contradictory findings?

The historical connection between restrictionist policies and economic downturns may have more to do with the mobilization of activists and interest groups than with the material calculations of the general public. And to the extent that public opposition to immigration is animated by economic fears, these concerns are traceable to perceptions about collective trends rather than to feelings of immediate personal vulnerability. Our findings also suggest that adverse economic developments stimulate anti-immigrant sentiment by engaging cultural anxieties and group identifications. Immigration policy thus provides a fertile domain for exploring the dynamic interplay between symbolic and economic policies.

Indeed, as Slate‘s Timothy Noah found, undocumented immigration has only a slight effect on income inequality. The difference is not enough to notice … until those “activists and interest groups” start playing on “cultural anxieties and group identification.”

But it’s not about race….


Happy Friday!