Arizona Immigration Laws: A Band-Aid for the Wrong Problem

Jutta Tobias

As we’re moving towards enforcement of Arizona’s new immigration laws, applicable from July 29th, 2010, voices in states as far away as Maryland are calling to import the same legislation into their own communities. They are misguided, because the new Arizonan immigration laws miss the mark, at so many levels.

As psychologists, we know that the relations between groups with social status disparities are problematic. We also know that whenever groups come in contact, they cannot help but categorize. The trouble starts here; and all sorts of social evils follow, such as ingroup preference, depersonalization of the others, intergroup distrust and competition.

What I find so particularly troublesome about the Arizona immigration laws is that they do not at all address the two biggest concerns that Americans have about immigration, according to recent NBC/Wall Street Journal and Gallup polls: border security and the socio-economic impact of undocumented workers living in the United States. Worse still, these laws risk scapegoating immigrants, hurting all echelons of this society, instead of making America stronger.

Mainstream America should worry about the increasing inequality that racial profiling of Latinos, or Latino-lookalikes, brings to Arizona. The reason: “dealing with them” is not the cure. It’s not even a band-aid. Inequality of this sort produces more, not fewer, social problems for all, not just for the targets of discrimination. A comprehensive recent meta-study published by the Equality Trust demonstrates this extraordinarily strong correlation.

If this in itself is not reason enough to reject this new legislative move, here are three specific reasons why we should all speak up against the Arizona laws.

First, it changes nothing about America’s border security. Arizona’s move to require local police officers to enforce immigration laws doesn’t stop illegal immigration before it happens. The main underlying concern with undocumented immigrants crossing “unsafe” borders is about the presumed link of this influx of “Illegals” with higher violence and narcotics crime. But it’s a myth that today’s ever-increasing influx of immigration, legal or not, means more crime. According to Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, first generation immigrants over the last dozen or so years are 45% less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans born in this country, independent of their immigration status. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States are not involved in narcotics trade at all. They work, in the low-skill jobs that American employers offer them. There’s truth to the argument that undocumented workers are comparatively more likely extortion targets of drug cartels because of their status. But this new legislation’s only contribution to the war on drugs is to make mixed-status households ever more fearful of the authorities, increasing the grip of violent thugs on them. Let’s fix the drain that our ongoing demand for illegal drugs imposes on our society, rather than frame the most vulnerable victims of illegal drug trade as the culprits of it all.

Second, who came up with the notion that “The Illegals” are a drain on the U.S. economy? The Social Security Administration reports that undocumented workers contribute as much as $7 billion annually to Social Security and Medicare tax payments. But that figure could be much higher. Only about 50% or so of undocumented immigrants, i.e. about 6 million people, dare be on the grid and actually file an annual tax return, according to a recent Internal Revenue Service estimate. Undocumented immigrants are net economic contributors. Take Texas, for example. In 2006, the Texas State Comptroller reported that unauthorized workers added $17.7 billion to the gross state product in 2005, and paid $1.58 billion to the state revenue. On the flipside, a 2006 RAND study indicates that the healthcare spent on undocumented adult workers amounts to about $11 in taxes per U.S. household per year, i.e. roughly one eightieth (1/80) of that spent on a U.S. adult citizen of working age. We need to get our facts straight, and finally recognize the reality that all immigrants enrich, rather than impoverish, this great American melting pot.

Finally, why do political agenda-setters not focus more on the solid correlation of robust immigration with economic growth, at all echelons of society? Immigrants arriving in the U.S. are gutsy folk. They’re entrepreneurial. In that, they’re similar to those Europeans who braved the unsafe waters of the Atlantic a hundred or more years ago in search of a better future here, for themselves and for their children. Today’s immigrants are ever-more entrepreneurial, it seems, because despite some $35 billion that have been spent on border reinforcement over the last dozen years, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. rose over the same period from about 5 million to some 12 million. More importantly, the economic advantage of sustained immigration for the United States is considerable. Acclaimed social trend researcher Joel Kotkin argues that over the next 40 years, America’s continued ethnic diversity will make the U.S. much more competitive than all other advanced nations. And in contrast to the rest of the industrialized world, the (racial minority-driven) population growth in the United States will provide sufficient numbers of young workers able to cover the increasing cost of aging America. I, for one, am not looking forward to retiring in Europe, where I am from. I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford the one or two geriatric nurses that will still be working by then in my home country.

We need Comprehensive Immigration Reform. And we especially need civil discourse that carefully addresses all the facts. An honest dialog capable of producing genuine solutions to the real issues behind rising illegal immigration. Solutions that make American society stronger, healthier, more peaceful. Deporting more undocumented workers only stokes the unfounded argument by ideological policy-makers that the “illegal aliens” are the problem, not the systemic reasons that incentivize them to keep crossing the border into America. These “Illegals” are entrepreneurs, just like my American friends’ ancestors. The most valuable predictor of sustained economic growth in any country. The U.S. cannot have enough of that.

PsySR member Jutta Tobias is a social psychologist who researches international entrepreneurship. She can be contacted at


2 Responses to “Arizona Immigration Laws: A Band-Aid for the Wrong Problem”

  1. sasoc Says:

    Illegal aliens are the problem, unless you think the country should surrender its borders to all those who wish to enter without identification. Do you suggest we rip out the Customs and Immigration agents at LAX and JFK for disembarking airplane passengers? Do you realize that even American descendants of those who arrived here on the Mayflower have to account for there whereabouts while they were outside the country? Do you think it matters at all whether such people are “entrepreneurs” (as if!!)? No, all must account for themselves with documentation and answers to an interrogation (“Where were you. How long were you there. What were you doing there.”).

    A country either has borders, or it does not, and yes it is that simple.

    For those here illegally, they should be subjected to law enforcement, just as you would be if you went running through the airport and tried to bypass Customs and Immigration.

    There have been reports that illegal immigrants are voluntarily leaving Arizona in advance of the new law’s implementation. I call that a partial success. A complete success will be when they voluntarily leave the country altogether, and this would be possible if other states enact the same law that Arizona has. If such people want to come back to the USA, they can do so in the manner of all legal immigrants: make an application, and wait.

  2. Gunnar Says:

    Thank you for writing that Jutta… I do think there should be a much greater focus on the underlying reasons for the immigration. Without stemming the influx that way it does not really matter how much money is “wasted” on security.

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