Brown people held vigil protesting SB 1070 outside the Arizona state capitol in May 2010. Republicans freaked out. (Joshua Lott / Reuters)
Republicans around the country are rushing to adopt Arizona-style anti-immigration laws, designed to criminalize undocumented immigrants and hassle them into oblivion.
Problem is, Americans are addicted to cheap immigrant labor -- from domestic help to farm labor -- leading to schizophrenic hilarity like this, from a couple of weeks ago:
The [Texas House] bill would make hiring an "unauthorized alien" a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, unless that is, they are hired to do household chores.
Yes, under the House Bill 2012 introduced by a tea party favorite state Rep. Debbie Riddle -- who's been saying for some time that she'd like to see Texas institute an Arizona-style immigration law -- hiring an undocumented maid, caretaker, lawnworker or any type of houseworker would be allowed. Why? As Texas state Rep. Aaron Pena, also a Republican, told CNN, without the exemption, "a large segment of the Texas population" would wind up in prison if the bill became law.
Yet Utah, locked in a battle with Oklahoma to claim the status of "most Republican state in the union", has decided a different approach:
Utah, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by better than three to one in the state legislature, has passed the nation's most liberal - and most reality-based - policy on illegal immigration. And the Republican governor is expected to sign it.
The legislation includes both a watered-down enforcement provision that police say won't make much difference and a guest-worker program that would make all the difference in the world - if it survives constitutional challenge - by granting legal status to undocumented workers and allowing them to live normal lives. In a nutshell, it's a one-state version of the overarching immigration reform package that Congress has repeatedly tried, and failed, to enact.
Conservative Republicans here - and Republicans don't get much more conservative than the statehouse variety in Salt Lake - say their bill is a gauntlet thrown down to the feds for their inability to deal with illegal immigration and the nation's demand for unskilled labor.
That's one way of looking at it. But the "Utah Way," as some are calling it, is also a fraternal attack on Republicans, in Washington and elsewhere, whose only strategy is to demonize, criminalize and deport 11 million illegal immigrants.
Karl Rove, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich are among the Republican grandees who have distanced themselves from that approach and warned of the peril it poses for the party. In the wake of Arizona's legislation last year, a wave of copycat bills would go a long way toward permanently ridding the GOP of Hispanics, the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority.
Now to be clear, this may be the most "liberal" immigration bill passed in America, it's by no means liberal. its guest worker program is a Chamber of Commerce's wet dream -- providing a stream of cheap labor, without the need for granting those workers with the rights and privileges of citizenship.
On the other hand, it's a million times better than the Arizona model, and it is still dramatic hearing unimpeachable conservatives say things like:
"They've had their 15 minutes in the media and now the adults are going to start talking about how to handle matters," said Paul Mero, executive director of Utah's most prominent conservative think tank, the Sutherland Institute, who helped draft the compact. "We've been able to break through that political barrier put up by the wing nuts who see every brown person as a criminal."
In the face of sound bites from reform opponents such as "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" Utah conservatives shot back with: What part of destroying the economy don't you understand? And by the way, what part of breaking up families don't you understand?
If conservatives were smart, they'd adopt this model. While not fully granting undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship, it's also not a hateful and destructive approach to a complicated and often vexing issue. Given that Latinos are naturally socially conservative, such an approach on immigration would give Republicans a fighting chance in winning their vote.
Politically, the Arizona approach is a gold mine for Democratic electoral chances. The GOP's zeal for demonizing the fastest-growing demographic in the nation is a wonder to behold. But from a policy perspective, the nation would be far better off if Republicans opted for the Utah model itself.
Heck, I'd be happy if our own Democratic administration would stop bragging that it is tougher on undocumented immigrants than even Bush was.
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