What would happen if the United States seriously enforced the ban on hiring undocumented workers? We may find out starting Jan. 1, when Arizona promises to do it locally.
The Arizona law is tough. Companies that knowingly employ illegal workers will have their business licenses suspended for a first offense and permanently revoked for the second.
The law clearly sees the workplace — not the state's 376-mile border with Mexico — as the main front in curbing illegal immigration. As a result, it could very well succeed.
Supporters of open borders predict economic chaos as Arizona companies lose access to cheap labor. Will dishes go unwashed and lawns unmowed? We shall see.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano reluctantly signed the law but vows to enforce it. A moderate Democrat, she maintains a close relationship with the governor of Sonora, the Mexican state to her south. She was also the first American governor to ask for National Guard reinforcements along the border.
Immigration happens to be Washington's responsibility. Federal law already forbids employers to hire undocumented workers. Until recently, the Bush administration virtually ignored the ban. Whenever anger at this dereliction grew politically problematic, Bush would stage some new military show at the border.
The troop movements provided a nice distraction but seem to have only modestly cut the flow of illegal immigrants. Folks from every continent enter the United States unlawfully through portals far from Mexico. Nearly half of all undocumented workers came here legally but overstayed their visas.
What the fixation on the border does is create unnecessary friction with Latin America. It seems to single out one ethnic group, discomforting even native-born Hispanics who object to illegal immigration. Roughing up poor peasants makes for an ugly visual, as do high fences facing what's supposed to be a good neighbor.
Without the job magnet, of course, most illegal aliens would simply not come here. That would free law enforcement to go after the bad actors trying to enter. The Mexican border would become a far more peaceful crossing that allows an easy back-and-forth of shoppers, tourists, friends and family members.
The question remains, how essential is illegal labor to America's prosperity? One thing is clear: The people who want it should not be providing the answers.
The National Journal asked Napolitano about "business community" complaints that Arizona's law would hurt the local economy. Napolitano said that she hears them, but other parts of the "business community" are telling her, "We're tired of competing against companies that are hiring illegally and therefore don't have to pay the same wages we pay."
And there are nonlabor concerns. Explosive population growth, fueled in part by illegal immigration, has created environmental challenges throughout the water-sport Southwest. On the social side, a massive influx of impoverished people with little English makes the task of providing education and other services that more vexing.
The president does not seem to share these anxieties. As a cheap-labor conservative, Bush's warm spot for open borders is understandable.
Less explicable are the views of diversity liberals who otherwise despise the man but attribute his policies to a soulful feeling for Mexico. A recent New Yorker article saw Bush's tolerance of illegal immigration through the prism of his experience as governor of Texas, a border state with deep Hispanic roots. No mention was made of Bush's long record as a stomper of labor standards wherever they might impair corporate profits.
Back in Arizona, Napolitano is now readying implementation of a major new immigration law. While it is not totally to her liking, she sees few alternatives. When it comes to fixing illegal immigration, Washington won't become functional anytime soon — and Arizona can't wait.
Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
2007, The Providence Journal Co."