Commentary: How Arizona immigration ruling might backfire on immigrants

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Like most civil rights supporters, I celebrated last week's news that a judge suspended the harshest portions of Arizona's xenophobic immigration law. But the more I think about it, the more I fear it will backfire in the near future.

The ruling suspends the Arizona law's provision that ask local police officers enforcing other laws to demand immigration papers from people they suspect are in the country illegally. That could have led to racially-motivated interrogations of both legal and undocumented Hispanics.

But contrary to conventional wisdom that the judge's decision was a victory for pro-immigrant forces, it could have a negative political impact in November's legislative elections and may end up hurting immigrants in the long run.

First, the ruling was the first step of what's likely to be a long legal battle. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a vocal supporter of the state law, has already said she has appealed the ruling and that she may take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The legal battle over the Arizona law is far from over.

Backers of the state law and similar bills that have been introduced in 17 states say that in light of federal government inaction, states have to take measures on their own to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants. The Obama Administration and pro-immigrant groups say the law violates fundamental rights, and call for a more comprehensive immigration reform.

Second, the ruling may energize Republicans in the November election. It will be used by anti-immigrant groups as a rallying cry to get voters to elect a new Congress that is more sympathetic to Arizona-style measures.

"I fear that the unintended consequence of this ruling is that it will redouble restrictionists' efforts at the national level, which will be to the detriment of immigrants," Temple University law professor Peter Spiro said. "They are hitting a brick wall at the state level, so they will step up their efforts in Washington."

Third, and most important, the news that the judge's ruling knocked out the most pervasive traits of the Arizona law may drive many Hispanics to stay at home in November.

Without Hispanic support, many Democratic opponents of Arizona-inspired laws may lose their elections, and there will be a greater chance that the next Congress will be more amenable to adopt draconian anti-immigration measures.

Obama won the 2008 election with a massive 67 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, but a new Associated Press-Univisión poll shows that only 57 percent of Hispanics approve of the president's job performance today.

"Definitely, the Democratic Party's greatest fear is that Hispanics will not get out to vote in November," says Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster who tracks the Hispanic vote nationwide. "If Hispanics don't turn out to vote, the party could suffer much more serious losses than anticipated."

In addition, many Hispanics may not turn out to vote in November because they are disappointed that Obama has not met his campaign promise of presenting a comprehensive immigration bill early in his presidency, Bendixen said.

While few pollsters predict a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, there is a chance that Democrats may lose the Senate, they say.

My opinion: I know this sounds weird, but if the judge had not blocked the worst provisions of the Arizona law, the state legislation may have died of natural causes once local police forces realized that they don't have the resources to act as federal immigration officers, nor the stomach to be seen worldwide as symbols of state-sponsored xenophobia.

Letting the worst parts of the Arizona law stand would have given Democrats a major campaign issue to get out the Hispanic vote in November, keep their majority in both houses of Congress, and negotiate a comprehensive immigration bill from a position of strength.

Now, it's going to be more difficult to get a high turnout from Hispanics, and we run the risk of ending up with a new Congress that is more sympathetic to Arizona-inspired anti-immigration laws. I hope I'm wrong, but it's a distinct possibility.

POST SCRIPT: Fortunately, the State Department has reversed its decision to deny a visa to Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, which we strongly condemned in a previous column. The visa rejection was an example of ideological exclusion practices that are not worthy of a free society.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

Related stories from McClatchy DC