Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arizona's new immigration law has become a huge source of controversy, but will its provisions actually do much of anything? That might seem like a strange question, until you consider the history of state immigration policy.
In 2005, Georgia approved what, at the time, many in the media called the nation's toughest immigration law. Earlier this year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at the limited impact of the law:
Nearly four years after it was passed, a state law cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants has had little effect: Two county prosecutors say they can't bring charges under the law because it provides no penalties. And the state hasn't audited a single employer because the Legislature hasn't set aside money to do so.
As you can tell from the description, the reasons that the Georgia law hasn't done much are fairly specific and might not apply to Arizona. If Georgia had just put in some money for some audits of employers, maybe their results would have been quite different.
Still, I think Georgia's experience holds a larger lesson. Law enforcement officers already have their hands full with conventional crimes. State agencies already are quite busy without adding new responsibilities. State lawmakers already are struggling to fund existing programs -- they don't have much money for new ones.
For those reasons, laws that sometimes seem like a big deal (about immigration or anything else) when they're approved can end up with bites that aren't proportionate to their barks. Many police officers in Arizona may decide that they don't have a "reasonable suspicion" that residents are in the country illegally very often.
But, there's another lesson from Georgia. Even if the Arizona law's provisions don't do all that much, it still will have some impact. When I went to Georgia in 2006, I found out that immigrants perceived the state to be cracking down on illegal immigration and that the perception itself was changing behavior:
There are signs that SB 529 has created a similar perception in Georgia, even though it is just going into effect. Gonzalez, of the Association of Latino Elected Officials, says that home and car sales to Hispanics have declined precipitously in Georgia in recent months, and the reason is that undocumented workers are afraid they may have to leave the state. "Immigrants are making sure that they are able to move at a moment's notice," he says. "The market has completely collapsed." The Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also cites real estate as its hardest-hit economic sector.
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