As events have unfolded in Arizona, transforming its image from boring border state to ground zero in the increasingly volatile debate over illegal immigration, I was reminded of a simple question posed by a journalist who watched another state transform under a wave of conservative populism: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Thomas Frank turned that question into a bestselling 2004 book about average Kansans who repeatedly voted against their own financial and political interests after ostensibly being co-opted by big moneyed political elites — in other words, Republicans.
From my vantage point, Arizona is lately looking like the Kansas of the Southwest. The only difference is that Arizona’s myopic Republican leaders have not so much co-opted state residents as taken them hostage by passing a nasty piece of immigration legislation that is leading the state down a path of economic ruin, racial divisiveness and national ridicule.
Here’s a state where 30 percent of the population is Latino, many of them citizens who vote, and lawmakers adopt at law that is so blatantly anti-Latino that it’s almost laughable. I say “almost laughable” because the highly punitive law is far from funny. It requires local police, during the course of enforcing a law, to request proof of legal residency from anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, and to arrest those who cannot prove legal status. The law is essentially a free pass for police to employ “Living While Latino” enforcement tactics in much the same way police have long used “Driving While Black” as an excuse to apprehend, stop, question, detain and otherwise harass black motorists.
Coming from a state that fought long and hard against adopting a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., the new immigration law is not surprising. As an encore, Gov. Jan Brewer signed another measure into law this week prohibiting the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools. The motivation? A Mexican-American studies program that the state schools superintendent said promoted Latino resentment and advocated ethnic solidarity. Never mind that the both the immigration law and the ethnic studies ban were prompted in large part by the ethnic solidarity of the white Republican lawmakers who backed the laws. Latino children now have a very real reason to be resentful of a law that essentially sanctions their stigmatization. It stands to reason that this might prompt them to seek relief among their own. Consider it ethnic solidarity born of exclusion.