According to the New York Times, in recent decades the United States has experienced the greatest wave of immigration since the 1920s. However, for the first time, illegal immigrants (many from bordering Mexico) are outnumbering legal immigrants and, in 2008, the estimate for illegal immigrants living in the USA was approaching 12,000,000 (source = http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration-and-emigration/index.html). In addition, the demographic profile of legal immigrants has changed significantly since the Immigration Act of 1965 - which amended the historic advantage afforded immigrants from Northern Europe under the quota system - and the Immigration Act of 1990, which expanded the quotas. This has led to an increasing number of immigrants from non-nativist ethnic/racial backgrounds especially those from South East Asia, India and South America. The combination of increased illegal immigration, and the racial/ethnic specificity of immigrants in recent decades, has created a backlash within the mainstream US in response to what is perceived as cultural and economic threats posed by ‘alien others’.
These tensions cross party boundaries and both Republican and Democratic politicians have responded to the fear amongst the electorate. In 1996, under Bill Clinton (1993-2001), laws were passed to strengthen the U.S. Border Patrol and erect fencing along the US-Mexican border. Also, Clinton’s welfare reforms cut social programmes for immigrants. George Bush (2001-2009) tried to pass a bi-partisan bill to deal with illegal immigration in 2007. However, this was not carried through as the US public were proven to be averse to any idea of granting legal status to any ‘illegals’ under any circumstances.
Although Barack Obama included immigration as an urgent policy issue in his campaign in 2008, it remained dormant until recently when Arizona ignited a firestorm by passing state legislation, contradictory to federal supremacy on the issue, which allows unprecedented authority to investigate and arrest suspected ‘illegals’. Other states, such as Kansas, Ohio and Georgia, are now considering following Arizona’s lead. Kris Kobach, a Kansas law professor, has been heavily involved in drafting Arizona’s legislation in order to help circumvent the federal government’s authority on the issue.
The Arizona law has created a split in the GOP between Republicans who support it and those, such as Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and Karl Rove, who are against. In addition, Kobach is himself exploiting the issue in the GOP primary for the Kansas secretary of state race. According to Mary Giovagnoli of the Immigration Policy Center (source: http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/05/kobach-arizona-immigration-law), '(The Arizona) law was very carefully crafted to track many provisions in federal law — it creates a plausible case for proponents to say we're not doing anything new.' Kobach responded that he's simply learned from his regular adversaries, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. 'They take the courts very seriously and recognize that the legal battles in the courtroom are every bit as important in political battles in Congress and in the state legislature' Kobach responded.(source: http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/05/kobach-arizona-immigration-law).
The positive response from many to the Arizona law has galvanized Democrats and led the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to declare that the Senate would act on an immigration bill this year. He suggested that a new immigration bill could be introduced before the end of May. Recently, a coalition of senior Senate Democrats laid out the scope of a proposed overhaul of immigration law - and appealed to Republicans to join them in pursuing it. In March, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, unveiled the outlines of a reform proposal which would require illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law before they could gain legal status, and also required all workers in the United States to carry a biometric identity card to prove that they are eligible to work. But, after the Arizona law was signed, Senator Graham declared that Congress should not try to act on such a 'divisive' subject in an election year, leaving the prospects for a bipartisan approach confused.
President Obama criticised the Arizona bill shortly before it was signed. The law, he said, threatened "to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe." (source: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration-and-emigration/index.html). The president has signalled that he is seeking a way to allow illegal aliens to become legal, while imposing restrictions that would make immigration more orderly (." (source: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration-and-emigration/index.html). The Arizona Legislature subsequently made changes to the law on 30th April 2010 which now explicitly bans the police from racial profiling and allows them to inquire about immigration status only of people they stop, detain or arrest in enforcing existing state law. But the new law now also includes civil violations of municipal codes as grounds to check papers, and opponents such as the ACLU were not appeased by the changes. However, public support for the Arizona bill has led the state’s Senator John McCain to endorse it despite previously refusing to back its more extreme measures. Russell Pearce, the state senator who wrote the law, cannot be dismissed as antithetical to the mainstrean position as he is also chairman of the Senate’s appropriation committee. As such, his influence extends to controlling the finance of bills.
The enactment of the Arizona law demonstrates the relative lack of political agency within the Arizona immigrant community and how politicians, in an election year, are willing to capitalise on immigration anxiety – particularly in key border states such as Arizona. According to Randal Archibold in a New York Times article (source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/us/20immig.html?scp=2&sq=immigration%20texas%20primary&st=cse):
‘More than a few Democrats took notice that Mr. Pearce, whose district is in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb, managed to win unanimous support for the bill from House Republicans, even from some moderates who had voiced misgivings about it. One of those moderates, State Representative Bill Konopnicki, Republican of Yuma, said planned amendments to address legal and other concerns never materialized. In the end, he said, “everybody was afraid to vote no on immigration.”’
Thus reflecting the extent to which moderate politicians are prepared to endorse legislation contradictory to their ethos in order to facilitate election goals. However, the Hispanic community, the biggest minority group in the USA, are a significant source of Democratic support. Any federal legislation antithetical to this important demographic group could therefore damage Democratic electoral prospects in the upcoming Congressional and Senatorial elections.