As Democrats formally unveiled a framework for national immigration reform Thursday, Arizona’s controversial new law — and its undertones of nativist fury over the nation’s demographic transformation — has cast an ominous shadow on the upcoming effort, an immigration expert and NAACP’s Arizona chief tell Raw Story.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature on the measure two Fridays ago sparked heated protests from civil rights and Hispanic groups, which contend it will lead to racial profiling by requiring authorities to seek documentation from people based on “reasonable suspicion” that they may be in the country illegally.
“There are certainly legitimate concerns with the broken immigration system,” Angela Kelley, chief immigration policy expert at the progressive Center for American Progress, said in an interview. “But there are some real racist undertones to this law that aren’t legitimate.”
A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “nativist extremist” groups Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or “furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups” Ã¢â‚¬â€œ spiked almost 80 percent in 2009, from 173 to 309. SPLC concluded that the steady rise in number of “hate groups” across the nation is “driven largely by an angry backlash against non-white immigration” and the “climb to power of an African-American president.”
“I do think these sentiments will play a role,” said Wilbert Nelson, president of the NAACP’s Arizona State Conference. “In terms of how much itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to say, but we know itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a growing factor.”
Nelson said the NAACP strongly opposes the law as it could lead to “violations of civil rights” against minorities. “When they say ‘reasonable suspicion’ they really mean people of color,” he explained.
While Republican leaders have mixed views, one poll by Rasmussen, a conservative-leaning organization, found that nearly two-thirds of Arizonans support the measure. Kelley noted that there are genuine reasons to be worried about the lack of border security, but alleged this is a step too far.
Propelling the sentiments behind it are the nation’s changing demographics, as the growth of American minorities, particularly Hispanics, continues to outpace that of whites. The Associated Press reported last month that “minorities are expected to become the U.S. majority over the next 40 years.”
Kelley said the Arizona law “shows the struggle of some who are clearly uncomfortable with an increasingly foreign-born population,” and predicted the “brutal amount of rage” resulting from this will play a “huge” role in the national immigration debate.
“The facts are stark,” she continued. “Hate crimes are up, the number of hate groups are up, immigrants and Latinos being targeted is becoming commonplace among hate groups.”
The fieriest passions of its proponents were inflamed on the day of the measure’s passage when a caller issued two death threats against Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ an opponent of the bill Ã¢â‚¬â€œ warning he’ll come in and “blow everyone’s head off” and then “go to the border and shoot any Mexicans that tried to come across,” the congressman’s spokesperson Adam Sarvana said.
Hints of a cultural and nativist undercurrent behind the law — as partly evidenced by email correspondence between its sponsor and legal architect, who seemed looking to specifically target Latinos — may be further reflected in the demographic characteristics of its leading proponents.
The Tea Party movement, the most visible group organizing in favor of restricting immigration, comprises 9 in 10 whites, and a mere five percent Hispanics, blacks and Asians combined, according to a recent New York Times/CBS survey.
Kelly and Nelson agreed that the anger behind the Arizona law foreshadows what’s likely to be an ugly battle once immigration reform takes center-stage nationally.
Sahil Kapur is Washington correspondent for Raw Story. He Tweets here.