Arizona voters sent a signal to Washington on Nov. 2. That front-line border state is feeling besieged and, not surprisingly, sharply divided over illegal immigration. Though its booming economy is dependent on foreign labor, the costs of the unauthorized influx from Mexico -- smuggler shootouts, bankrupt hospitals, a mounting toll of deaths in the desert -- have risen to the point that many residents just can't take it anymore. So on Election Day, Arizonans voted decisively -- 56 percent to 44 percent -- in favor of a state ballot initiative to bar illegal immigrants from receiving government services.
I was deeply disappointed in the outcome: I'd been working for months to help defeat Proposition 200, both in-state and out. But having spent a good part of the fall listening to Arizonans talk about immigration, I worry that the message they sent is being misinterpreted. Far from a simple anti-immigrant backlash, their vote for the proposition seemed more like a cry for help -- a plea for federal action -- and that could be heartening news for immigration reformers. To me, it proves that given half a chance, many people are willing to think hard about this difficult issue and see that a real solution has to go beyond merely getting tough.
Whether they cast their ballots for or against Proposition 200, what most Arizonans seemed to want to tell Washington was: Get to work on a remedy. "The point is to get the conversation going," said one Phoenix resident I chatted with at a debate. "It's a federal matter, but they're not paying attention."
The news last week suggested that maybe the administration is ready to do something. Secretary of State Colin Powell, traveling in Mexico, announced that immigration reform will be a "high priority" in the second term. President Bush met with Arizona Sen. John McCain to discuss a congressional strategy. The challenge now for both the White House and Congress is to interpret the voters' broad-brush entreaty. Much as they want change, Arizonans -- like other Americans -- are far from certain about what kind of change would be most effective. Now it falls to Washington to fill in the blanks: to craft and pass a legislative package that will truly solve the problem of illegal immigration.
It's no accident that the public's concern about immigration surfaced most virulently in Arizona. A decade of cracking down on the border in California and Texas has driven the lion's share of the illegal flow through the Arizona desert. (The Department of Homeland Security's Tucson Sector accounted for 42 percent of all Border Patrol arrests last year -- some 1,350 a day along just 260 miles of frontier.) And people throughout the state are living with the consequences: a flood of disruptive transients, soaring service costs and the deadly violence associated with human smuggling. As far from the border as Phoenix and even beyond, immigrant smugglers warehouse their clients in filthy stash houses, then fight over them in gun battles that endanger local residents.
No wonder Arizonans are clamoring for a solution.
But it wasn't Arizonans who turned the state into a national battleground. That was the work of Washington-based anti-immigration activists looking for an easy electoral victory. A coalition led by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, spent nearly half a million dollars to put Proposition 200, which otherwise would have gotten nowhere, on the ballot. The group made no secret of its goal: to repeat what happened in California a decade ago, when a lopsided vote in favor of a similar referendum, Proposition 187, triggered a national crackdown on immigration.
Nothing seems to frighten FAIR as much as the bipartisan consensus emerging in Washington in favor of an immigration overhaul. Endorsed by the president and by senators as different as McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, that reform would combine a guest-worker program with some sort of legalization for illegal migrants already in the country. The restrictionist coalition set out to stop this momentum with what it thought would be an overwhelming landslide telegraphing voters' generalized hostility toward immigrants. FAIR cast the issue as a matter of "the people" vs. "elites" and urged Arizona voters to tell evil "special interests" -- business, unions and elected officials, who allegedly benefit from immigrants at the public's expense -- where to get off.
The nativist activists designed the measure to have maximum public appeal, and it worked. Who doesn't want to reduce welfare rolls or think people should have to prove they are citizens in order to vote, as the proposition requires? The problem is that the initiative is so sloppily written as to be all but impossible to implement. (Its main provision would deny illegal immigrants access to "public benefits" -- a phrase interpreted by some proponents as covering only welfare payments and by others as including any and all state-provided services.) More importantly, it says nothing one way or the other about federal immigration policy, making it an extremely blunt if not useless instrument to influence elected officials in Washington.
The campaign against the initiative didn't get going until it was confirmed that Proposition 200 would be on the ballot -- just eight weeks before Election Day. Unlike in California 10 years ago, a broad bipartisan coalition came together to oppose the measure: Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, grass-roots ethnic activists and state employees including firefighters and health care workers. Also unlike in California, where the opposition was heavily Hispanic, in Arizona it more often showed an Anglo, Republican face. Leading spokespeople came from the state Chamber of Commerce and the Phoenix business elite. McCain fought tirelessly against the measure, and the campaign worked as hard in rock-solid GOP precincts as in the Latino community. Its two main themes: that the measure would prove too broad to implement and that it would do nothing to stem illegal immigration.
The effort failed; we didn't, frankly, even bring the vote as close as we would have liked. And if anything, the emphasis on the measure's unclear wording may have backfired, making it easier for voters to endorse something they knew would never be put in place -- allowing them, in effect, to send a cost-free message.
But the "No on 200" campaign was successful in significantly narrowing the margin in favor of the provision. Early polls predicted passage by a vote of 80 percent to 20 percent. Yet in the end, nearly one-quarter of the electorate was persuaded to change its mind -- a remarkable achievement, I believe, given the short campaign and the emotion that invariably surrounds immigration.
Not only that, but the coalition made these inroads by tackling the tough issue head-on: not evading the topic of illegal immigration or denying voters' frustration, but rather urging even the angriest Arizonans to think harder about what would solve the problem. "Proposition 200 will not stop a single illegal immigrant from crossing the border," the campaign proclaimed, calling on voters to reject the measure in the name of "real immigration reform."
And ordinary Arizonans did indeed spend two intense months discussing -- in town hall meetings and op-ed debates, as well as and long, substantive stand-offs on drive-time radio -- what might actually work to ease the aggravations caused by the illegal influx. There was no consensus. Even in Arizona, voters don't yet know enough about the policy options. But proponents and opponents alike mostly recognize that Proposition 200 will not make for effective enforcement -- after all, most immigrants come to work, not to vote or get welfare benefits.
Where does that leave federal officials? History teaches several unexpected lessons about what kind of immigration reform is likely to be effective. Though California's Proposition 187 was largely invalidated in court, Congress essentially implemented it on a national scale, denying illegal immigrants all but the most minimal government services, including emergency room health care and K-12 education. The cutbacks were popular with voters, but they have done nothing to stem the tide. Nor has a draconian crackdown on the Southwest border: Despite a tripling of the number of border agents and a quintupling of their budget in the last decade, more unauthorized immigrants enter the country now than before the massive buildup.
Of course, better enforcement is necessary, both on the border and in the workplace. But we will not regain control of our borders until we also come to grips with the international forces of supply and demand that drive record numbers of migrants to our shores. A real solution, both President Bush and congressional leaders know, requires that we recognize and manage this inevitable flow -- by means of a guest-worker program backed up by more effective enforcement.
The good news out of Arizona is that voters can be educated about this. Yes, they are frustrated by the illegal influx. Yes, they are deeply concerned about the rule of law, angry about the way it is routinely breached on the border and elsewhere. The politics of immigration are not unlike the politics of free trade: There is indeed some disconnect between elite and popular opinion, and the kinds of reforms that are needed aren't easy to explain to voters.
Still, as the campaign in Arizona shows, reformers need not shrink from the debate ahead -- the debate the nation will have to have if we are going to fix our broken immigration system. Concerned as they are, most voters aren't reflexively anti-immigrant. They don't necessarily favor a crackdown for a crackdown's sake. What they want is a solution, not an empty gesture, and many will listen to politicians -- of either party -- who can explain the difference and deliver on real reform.