Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

The Self-destruction of Arizona

| April 9, 2012

WITH ALL the problems in education these days, Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal, thinks he has the answer. He just completed a successful effort to suspend Mexican-American studies from the public schools in this city, claiming such classes teach students to resent Anglos. Now convinced that the universities that train public school teachers are also to blame for such biases, he is launching an effort to eradicate Mexican-American studies from the entire University of Arizona system.

Driving along these cactus roads towards the Mexican border, it's hard not to think of all the energy being wasted by Arizona's leaders on a false threat — multiculturalism — and how much the state is paying for it. It's like a global party is going on, and Arizona's Republican leadership is waiting by the phone, in an ugly dress, wondering why no one is paying attention.

It seems there is a 51st state. It's called faux-Arizona and is led by Governor Jan Brewer. To believe her, it's a horrible place to be, and tough laws and potentially unconstitutional efforts to eradicate illegal immigration are the only response.

The communities along the border, however, tell a different story; they're for the most part peaceful places with vibrant communities and civic life. No amount of fear-mongering can change basic statistics: Illegal border crossings are down. Border enforcement is up. There is almost no spillover violence from Mexican gangs. Even legal immigration inflows are down. Indeed, the worst harm illegal immigrants have inflicted on Arizona's economy has been to spark an overzealous response; Brewer's crackdown has so frightened or offended people outside the state that they are staying away, including tourists and foreign investors.

The anti-immigrant fervor is not about the future of Arizona; it's more of a last stand against it. Almost 20 percent of the voting age population here is Hispanic. The demographics are changing and no amount of "send them back" will alter that. This is certainly what Democrats here are hoping for. They just elected new mayors in Tucson and Phoenix. President Barack Obama is sensing an opportunity and organizing diligently in a state that, besides Bill Clinton's romp over Bob Dole in 1996, has not voted for a Democrat since Harry Truman in 1948. But just campaigning here is useful to the president; if nothing else it probably obliges Mitt Romney to do a photo-op with Brewer.

But perhaps the most unappreciated aspect of Arizona's retro-battle against immigration is that it seeks to freeze the state in the 1970s; while Arizona moves backward, its neighbors are jumping ahead.

Later this week the heads of state and government of 34 nations in this hemisphere will meet in Cartagena, Colombia, at the sixth Summit of the Americas. Obama will be there, and all our American brethren, minus Cuba and Ecuador, will too. They will talk about their economies, energy supplies, trade agreements, and commerce. They will talk about drugs, of course, and the insatiable US appetite for them. But they will not be talking about whether classes in Hispanic studies are inherently anti-Anglo.

Immigration discussions are relevant to this global group, but only because hardline stances in places like Arizona are so inconsistent with the many advances in our relationship with Mexico. Mexico is not only one of the United States' largest markets, it is one of our largest sources of energy imports, behind only Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Instead of focusing on a false enemy, Arizona might take notice of the demographic shift in Mexico that will change the nature of immigration to this nation. As Shannon O'Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations describes, "(T)here's somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 fewer Mexicans turning 18 today than there were back in 1990, when we saw the start of the emigration boom."

In the 1970s, a Mexican family constituted, on average, six children. Today it is about two per family, similar to the United States. They are more educated and, with a population of 110 million people, there is a vibrant middle class. And though Mexico is waging a violent drug war, it also has a burgeoning economy with manufacturing companies and hotels being built along the border here to satisfy both business and vacation needs.

These demographic and economic changes will mean, according to O'Neil, "that fewer Mexicans need or want to come to the United States." While the cool folks are sharing margaritas on the border discussing global integration and how interdependent economies can thrive, Arizona might still be waiting for the phone to ring.

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For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“The Self-destruction of Arizona.” The Boston Globe, April 9, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem