Research: Commentary

Securing Arizona

Boston Review, March 21, 2011 | Article

By Tom Barry

A sense of solidarity led the Tea Party Patriots to Phoenix for their American Policy Summit in February. It’s “our opportunity to support the citizens of Arizona in their current political battles that carry so many national implications,” the organizers of the Summit said. Arizona’s capital, according to the Patriots, is “the great southwestern city, born from the ruins of a former civilization, now the rebirth place of American culture.”

Over the past year, a few signature events—the killing last March of border rancher Rob Krenz; the passage the following month of the immigration-control law SB 1070; and the January 2011 massacre in Tucson that killed six people and gravely wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords—have focused national attention on the political and social tensions in Arizona. The state’s cast of political figures—from Senator John McCain to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—has captured the media spotlight and won Arizona a rogue reputation.

But Arizona may not be such an outlier.

Certainly Arizona’s history and geography make it one of a kind. Still, comparable demographic and cultural strife is cropping up almost everywhere in America. Arizona’s budget woes, while much worse than most states’, are mirrored throughout the country in conflicts over government downsizing and taxes. Hatred, economic stress, and fears of border insecurity are playing out in unusually grand scale in Arizona, yet mostly reflect the sense of vulnerability and uncertainty about personal and national prospects that are felt throughout the country.

Arizona’s politics are dominated by a potent mix of three ideological currents: support for a muscular national-security program, libertarian capitalism, and social traditionalism. These ideas have long shaped the wider American conservative movement, so it is hardly surprising that some, such as the Tea Party, look to the state as a model for the nation. They applaud Arizona as the vanguard of the new conservative revolution; it has taken the challenges of immigration enforcement and border security into its own hands, opposed “Big Government” with its newly invigorated populism, and embraced libertarian principles through privatization and government-spending cuts. Boosters point to a mounting list of Arizona firsts: its anti-immigrant legislation, new law banning ethnic studies programs in public universities, proposals against birthright citizenship, gun-rights bills, and demand for a federal waiver from compliance with Medicaid provisions. SB 1070 copycat bills have been introduced in six states, and legislators in fifteen more have expressed interest in their own imitations.

Others see a spectacularly dangerous project in Arizona’s ideological approach to policy. Instead of raising alarm about the state’s financial instability, Republican politicians—with the organized support of some prominent sheriffs, right-wing foundations and policy institutes, and the Arizona Tea Party—have exploited widespread resentment about fading wealth and diminishing social services by scapegoating immigrants and blaming Washington.

Arizona faces dire problems, but, rather than address them, its leaders make political hay out of convenient distractions. This dynamic demands close scrutiny, especially if the country is facing its future on the border.

BUST
In the 2010 electoral season, border-security talk boiled over in the Arizona heat. Governor Jan Brewer made unsubstantiated claims about drug-related beheadings; Jesse Kelly, a Tea Party candidate trying to unseat Giffords, accused her of being weak on immigration enforcement and border security; and John McCain repeatedly stressed the need to “secure our borders.”

It was only on the margins that anxiety mounted over the fiscal stability of state government and the future of the badly battered Arizona economy.

You can’t miss the signs of crisis. Many state parks and offices are shuttered, plastered with “Closed for Stabilization” notices. Thousands of recently built McMansions stand empty, newly constructed highway ramps lead to empty subdivisions and strip malls, and immigrants, whose cheap labor built now-abandoned housing developments, are fleeing the state as immigration enforcement intensifies.

In 2007 Arizona was the fourteenth-poorest state; today it’s number two.

Arizona was hit particularly hard by the housing bust thanks to its poorly diversified economy. “Five Cs”—copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, and climate—are represented on the “Great Seal of Arizona” with the motto Ditat Deus (God Enriches), but it’s been a long time since mining, ranching, and agriculture ruled Arizona. The five Cs have been reduced to one: climate. As retirees flocked to the warm Southwestern sun, a “real estate–industrial complex” took root as the primary economic engine of the state.

Galloping population growth has been a constant in Arizona. Over the past four decades, the state’s population has quadrupled. For the past two decades, Arizona has been the second-fastest growing state (following Nevada). Spurred by consumer demand (largely in construction and related areas), Arizona’s GDP growth has far outpaced the national average.

Since the mid-1980s, easy, unsecured financing has fueled Arizona’s real estate boom. As Arizonans, and later most of America, began to think of their homes as investments, waves of newcomers bought fancy new homes with the conviction that they could trade up. The boom—which outlasted the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s that brought heavy heavy criticism to McCain and fellow Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini—produced hundreds of developments stretching into the vast expanses of desert sands and paving over citrus groves that once surrounded Phoenix and other cities.

In the 1990s Arizona enjoyed enviable budget surpluses as sales and property taxes—stimulated by the housing boom—flooded government coffers. At the same time, Arizona’s political leaders curried favor with voters with near-annual tax-cutting bills. As the housing bubble kept expanding and the good times kept rolling, the state legislature faithfully approved new spending packages without allocating revenues that would pay for them.

When the bubble burst in 2007, an epidemic of foreclosures and traumatic declines in housing valuations bred fiscal crisis. In 2007 Arizona was the nation’s fourteenth-poorest state, but today it is second only to Mississippi. In 2009 it faced the largest income-spending gap in the nation.

No other state faces such a grave threat to its stability. A Brookings Institution study [PDF] of state finances in four Western states put Arizona—with its projected 33 percent budget deficit—in far worse circumstances than even California.

According to the Brookings study, in the 2011 fiscal year, Arizona faces a 12 percent cyclical budget deficit, amounting to $1.2 billion; a 21 percent structural deficit, or a cool $2.1 billion; and a loss of $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds that propped up the state’s 2010 accounts.

Instead of raising taxes, the Republican leadership has taken the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to downsize government, cut social services, and privatize. The Supreme Court building and the governor’s office tower now belong to private investors, prisons are being sold off, and full-day kindergarten has been eliminated.

[Click on chart to enlarge in a new window.]

GENERATION GAP
Other states have suffered from the housing bust, but demographics also conspired against the stability of Arizona.

Even before the Great Recession, the state’s two wellsprings of population growth—Latino immigration and Midwest migration—were proving a volatile mix. Surges of snowbirds from the north and immigrants from the south have fed Phoenix and Tucson, with brown immigrant labor building the tile-roofed homes of mostly white transplants who previously had little contact with Latinos.

The two demographic flows complemented each other economically, but the combination has proved politically toxic, especially as immigrant population growth began to outpace migration from other states. Over the last two decades, the Latino population increased 180 percent while the state shifted from from 72 percent to 58 percent white. Currently, Latinos account for 31 percent of Arizona’s population (yet only 17 percent of the electorate), with an estimated 7 percent of the population being unauthorized. Immigrant population growth over the past two decades has put Arizona on a fast track toward becoming a minority-majority state—likely by 2020 or sooner. It suggests rising Latino political clout and, along with it, a solid Democratic majority. Alongside Latinos, the college-educated white population has been growing faster than the senior white population and the population without college degrees, a dynamic that also disadvantages Republicans [PDF].

These changing demographics have produced a white backlash that, when combined with historically low rates of Latino electoral participation, have contributed to a Republican resurgence in Arizona.

The political backlash in part reflects a “cultural generation gap.” Arizona’s “swift Hispanic growth has been concentrated in young adults and children,” says Brookings’ William Frey, creating a population with “largely white baby boomers and older populations.” In Arizona 43 percent of children are white, compared to 83 percent of the seniors. The 40 percent gap is the highest in the country, far outstripping the national average of 25 percent. Other states that have experienced rapid immigrant population growth—including Nevada, California, Texas, and Florida—confront comparably wide gaps.

With cuts everywhere, resentments about the provision of services to the young, the poor, and Latinos have emerged.

In addition to ethnicity and race, class shapes the state’s political divide. And here again, age is a factor. With state, county, and municipal governments all strapped for cash, disparate social sectors are mobilizing to protect their own interests.

Seniors and the state’s aging white population have been disproportionately affected by declining housing prices. As a result, while they don’t necessarily believe that the budgets for education and indigent medical care should be slashed, they are more concerned about cuts to elderly medical care and pensions, the cost of which has jumped more than 440 percent since 2000. With everything on the chopping block, latent resentments about the disproportionate use of educational and social services by the young, poor, and Latino social sectors have emerged.

Governor Brewer describes her tax reforms as “righteous,” appealing to a socially conservative, white-right base that abhors the provision of education and emergency-medical services to illegal immigrants. Never mind that, as Arizona State economist José Mendez told The Arizona Republic, “Empirical studies have shown, [illegal immigrants] pay more in taxes than the value of services they receive.”

Until 2007 economic growth helped to dampen the impact of these cultural and generational pressures. As long as the state could meet its public obligations, there was no reason to get anxious about immigrants ostensibly bleeding the state dry. But since then, sinking revenues from sales and property taxes have set off a frenzy of budget cutting and privatization—a frightening turn for Arizonans accustomed to boom times.

GOING ALONE
Faced with this fiscal crisis, Arizona Republicans have managed to consolidate power by blaming Washington for the state’s problems, exploiting fears of big government, and drawing on the state’s history of anti-immigrant animus and vigilantism. Republicans occupy 61 of the 90 seats in the legislature; the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction (an elected position) are all Republicans.


Tom Barry

At the start of her new term in January 2011, Governor Brewer set forth her “Renewed Federalism” policy agenda. [PDF] “Faithful adherence to limited government and populist virtues is a hallmark of Arizona’s first hundred years,” Brewer declared. She vowed to pursue a model that “limits the growth of the public sector and restrains unnecessary regulatory encroachment upon areas that are outside the rightful scope of government.” By “areas” she meant “the affirmative goal of stimulating free enterprise.” Brewer asserted that her system “protects [Arizona] and its citizens against an over-reaching federal government,” and puts the federal government’s “constitutional and statutory duties to secure the border and restore integrity to our immigration system” at the top of the policy agenda.

Brewer’s program hews closely to the ideology and policy prescriptions favored by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Americans for Prosperity, and other conservative think tanks. The restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, worked with leading Republican legislators and selected sheriffs to fashion the language of SB 1070. Both FAIR and the corporate-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council supported the formulation of SB 1070 as a model of “states’-rights” immigration enforcement that other states could follow.

A key figure in charting the state’s economic and social course is Republican State Senator Russell Pearce, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the newly elected Senate president. Named “Taxpayer of the Year” in 2003 by the anti-tax institute Americans for Tax Reform, Pearce is a fiscal conservative, social conservative, law-enforcement hardliner, and, like many key Republican leaders in Arizona, a Mormon. Pearce also closely identifies with the anti-Obama, and anti-big government positions of Americans for Prosperity, which offers state-level logistical support and training to Tea Party activists. He boasts of being a “proud member” of the Tea Party.

Pearce achieved national prominence this year as the main sponsor of SB 1070 and for his outspoken views on immigrants, border security, federalism, and liberalism. A 23-year veteran of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, Pearce served as chief deputy under Sheriff Joe Arpaio before leaving the Department in 1994. Pearce brags that he launched the Department’s notorious thousand-bed “tent city” for jailed immigrants and other selected county inmates. Since 2004 Pearce has sponsored a series of anti-immigrant measures, including bills to deny social services to unauthorized immigrants, sanction employers who hire them, make English the state’s official language, prohibit ethnic-studies programs at state institutions, and deny citizenship rights in Arizona to children of illegal immigrants. Pearce is also a key figure in promoting prison privatization.

Sheriff Dever insisted that local law enforcement must be involved in border control—‘at least until [the] federal government decides to do its job.’

While Republican political figures such as Pearce have perfected Arizona’s new conservative politics at the state level, a trio of county sheriffs—Arpaio in Maricopa County, Larry Dever in Cochise County, and Paul Babeu in Pinal County—have given critical law-enforcement credibility to border-security hawks who rely on popular anxiety to get elected. On the national level, Dever and Babeu have also given voice to a new border-security populism, inflected more by politically effective appeals to rule of law than blatant anti-immigrant sentiment.

Dever’s Cochise County is a vast swath of borderland in Arizona’s southeastern corner and the heart of Representative Giffords’s congressional district. Towns on either side of the 82-mile border with Mexico share the same Spanish name. In the streets of the old county seat of Tombstone, the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral between feuding gangs of deputized ruffians and rustlers is daily reenacted to crowds of fascinated tourists.

Cochise has only recently become a leading front in the border-security offensive. Since the Border Patrol tightened controls along the traditional corridors of illegal border crossing around El Paso and San Diego in the 1990s, flows of illegal immigrants and drugs have shifted to more inaccessible stretches of the border, such as Cochise.

Typically wearing blue jeans and a cowboy hat, Dever rejects the unholy tradition of quick-on-the-trigger Tombstone sheriffs and draws instead on moral imperative; his department’s mission statement quotes Winston Churchill: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.” Interviewed at his office outside the borderland town of Bisbee, Dever insisted that local law enforcement must be involved in border control—“at least until [the] federal government decides to do its job.”

Even before SB 1070 and the series of anti-immigrant legislative measures that preceded it, Cochise and Arizona were taking immigration and border issues into their own hands. One of Dever’s predecessors, Sheriff Harry Wheeler, deputized a posse of Bisbee citizens, largely members of the town’s anti-immigrant Loyalty League, to organize the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. The posse rounded up 1,200 suspected immigrants (both European and Mexican) for supporting the ongoing strike organized by the International Workers of the World at the Phelps Copper mine. Wheeler loaded the suspected strikers into boxcars and, in mid-July heat, sent them 200 miles away. They were dumped without provisions or water in the middle of the New Mexico badlands.

Cochise has since proved hospitable to anti-immigrant vigilantes. Glenn Spencer, who led white-supremacist groups in California, moved in 2002 to Sierra Vista, in Cochise, where he formed the self-described citizen militia American Border Patrol “on the front lines.”

Spencer befriended ranchers Roger and Don Barnett, who have a 22,000-acre ranch outside Douglas that they patrol with night-vision goggles and assault rifles. In 1999 the Barnett brothers formed a 30-member rancher militia called Cochise County Concerned Citizens. In 2009 a federal court found Roger Barnett guilty of a 2004 armed assault on a group of seven Mexican immigrants. For failing to prevent Barnett, a former county deputy, from holding unarmed Mexicans men at “gunpoint, yelling obscenities at them and kicking one of the women,” Dever himself was charged but not convicted in a suit organized by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, Governor Jan Brewer, and Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever / Courtesy of Pinal County Sheriff’s Office

Long before anti-immigrant vigilantism took an organized form in Cochise County, white ranching families on the arid cattle spreads of the borderland began lashing out against Mexican immigrants crossing their land. Only a few miles from where Krentz was murdered in 2010, the father and two brothers of a prominent ranching family of Cochise once turned their rising anger at trespassing immigrants into cruel sport.

I traveled to Cochise in 1976 after reading the preliminary news about the Hanigan brothers, Thomas and Patrick. With the support of their father George, they captured and tortured three immigrants who were passing harmlessly through their ranch on their way to seasonal farm work in northern Cochise. The young Mexican men were beaten, robbed, hanged from a tree, burnt with a flame held to their dangling feet, and threatened with knives grazing their genitals. The Hanigans eventually cut their victims loose and told them to run back to Mexico, letting fly volleys of birdshot as they ran off. With juries sympathetic to the property owners and the alarm about drug smuggling, it took three trials for one of the Hanigans to be convicted and sentenced.

Dever and the politicians in Phoenix rely upon and cultivate this sense of go-it-alone toughness to stoke the fires of anti-immigrant sentiment and convince voters that Arizona has no choice but to come up with a homegrown response.

Phoenix Republicans also get their share of help from Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County. “Sheriff Paul’s” web site urges citizens to “Stand with Arizona!” and help him “fight illegal immigration and secure the border.” In frequent appearances on Fox News and any other outlet that will have him, the always-smiling, articulate, shiny-headed sheriff mixes his anti-immigrant, secure-the-border convictions with Tea Party slogans about how the country is “sprinting down the path to socialism.”

Governor Brewer has made unsubstantiated claims about beheadings taking place on the border.

With its southern edge 80 miles from the border, Pinal is not even a border county. But that doesn’t bother Babeu, who is sure that violence is spilling over from Mexico into his jurisdiction and that illegal immigrants are behind a local crime wave. “With the rise in the amount of armed violent encounters in the rural areas of Pinal County, it has created a sense of fear in the general public and has restricted their ability to enjoy the desert and rural areas of the county,” Babeu claimed in a recent funding proposal.

Pete Rios, chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, complains that that the sheriff’s department hasn’t supported its threat assessment with evidence. “All I want is for the sheriff to back his claims with data, but he hasn’t done that yet,” Rios told me.

Rios also expressed skepticism about the sheriff’s version of the alleged April 30, 2010 shooting of Deputy Louie Puroll by drug smugglers armed with AK-47 rifles. “They never found the AK-47s, the bales of smuggled marijuana, or even any bullet casings,” Rios observed, despite helicopter surveillance and a massive dragnet that included the Border Patrol. The wounded deputy was quickly released from the hospital.

Questions about the sheriff’s account of the incident and its timing—a week after Brewer signed SB 1070 to a nationwide firestorm of criticism—have since dogged the department. Forensic experts determined that Puroll’s wound came from a weapon fired only inches away, fueling accusations that the shooting was a hoax to build support for SB 1070 and the sheriff himself. Babeu fired Puroll in January for tall tales he told a Phoenix New Times reporter about supposed contacts with drug cartels, but the sheriff stressed that he still “backed [Puroll] 100 percent” on the shootout story.

Claims by the likes of Dever and Babeu—that the federal government’s failure to secure the border has subjected Arizona to spillover violence and immigrant crime—are at the core of the Arizona GOP’s approach to winning elections, and Governor Brewer echoed them during the 2010 campaign. In April 2010 she told of unchecked “murder, terror, and mayhem” at the border, and in June she launched the Border Security Enhancement Program, which channels money from the governor’s office to border sheriffs. Announcing the program, Brewer declared, “The federal government has failed miserably in its obligation and moral responsibility to its citizens regarding border security.”

Border-security hawks and immigrant bashers in Arizona thrive on myths and exaggerations. Over the past decade crime rates in Arizona have dropped while the immigrant population has expanded dramatically—up 62 percent from 2000 to 2009, while Arizona’s total population increased 24.6 percent. FBI crime statistics (covering all violent crime, property crime, murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny theft, and vehicle theft) show a near-steady 22 percent decline in total crime over that period. Vehicle thefts dropped by half. Even along the border, as immigrant and non-immigrant populations were rising, crime rates fell. Douglas and Nogales, both border towns, are among the state’s safest communities.

Arizona’s conservative sheriffs routinely point out that the state has become a preferred corridor for illegal immigration. In their alarm about border insecurity, they fail to note the dramatic decline in illegal crossings over the past six years. In 2010 Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal border crossers in Arizona were down by 12 percent from the previous year and were less than half the number of 2004.


BIG GOVERNMENT, BIG HELPThe threat of escalating border violence isn’t the only border myth propagated by Arizona’s anti-Washington activists. Border security hawks in Arizona blame the federal government for not doing its job, obligating border sheriffs and the state government to cover security breaches. Brewer contributed to this narrative by establishing her Border Security Enhancement Program, but what she didn’t advertise is that the $10 million she distributed to border sheriffs (along with a subsequent $10 million to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies) came from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, established in 2009 with federal stimulus dollars from the Department of Education.

Although most of the funding was used, as intended, to stabilize the state’s education budget, Brewer channeled the first $50 million in the stabilization fund to cover the payroll of the state corrections agency. While Sheriffs Dever and Babeu rail about federal neglect of the border, their departments are awash in federal dollars for border security thanks to the stimulus money and multiple large border-security grants from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice.

Opposition to Big Government plays well at the State Capitol, but Big Government made this desert miracle possible.

Opposition to big government and the Obama administration plays well at the State Capitol. Conveniently missing from this narrative is the back-story of federal subsidies and contracts.

At last count, Arizona received $1.19 in federal spending for every dollar sent to Washington, which makes it a beneficiary state. In contrast, California gets $0.78 back for every federal tax-dollar paid, Nevada just $0.65, and Colorado $0.81, while Utah receives $1.07 and New Mexico $2.03. The taking culture of Arizona includes the state’s retired masses, whose Medicare and Social Security payments not only help keep them solvent, but also direct federal government revenue to the state’s still-thriving medical-care sector.

Big Government came to Arizona’s rescue in 2009 with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated $4.3 billion—nearly half of Arizona’s annual budget—to stabilize the state’s finances and stave off economic collapse. The termination of ARRA funding is sending shock waves through state agencies, local governments, and Arizona’s education and health providers.


U.S. Army / Sgt. Jim Greenhill

Arizona also benefits economically from Homeland Security contracts to house immigrant prisoners. The state already counts among its residents 2,500–3,000 immigrant detainees, and in 2009 Pinal County received $11.7 million from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrants in the 1,500-bed county jail. Increased immigration-enforcement and border-security operations by the federal government in recent years have proved a boon to both private and public prisons in Arizona, and the per-diem payments offered by DHS for immigration detention will surely increase if SB 1070 is enforced.

Federal dollars also help explain Arizona’s historic rise. How else to explain a housing oasis in the northern Sonoran desert? Remarking on this mystery, writer and environmental activist Edward Abbey wrote, “There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

Big Government made this desert miracle possible with two massive water diversion projects—the Salt River Project and the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Envisioned by Barry Goldwater, CAP is the largest and most expensive aqueduct system ever constructed in the United States. Its exclusive purpose is to feed Colorado River water to parched Central and Southern Arizona. Massive pumping of groundwater, accumulated over the eons in aquifers, further enabled the desert bloom. But depleting groundwater reserves and climate change–induced drought in the Colorado Basin now loom as the most serious threats to the Arizona development model.

Direct federal subsidies also underwrite Arizona agribusiness. The United States is the third-largest producer and number one exporter of cotton mainly because of government subsidies—more than $29 billion between 1995 and 2009, $374 million of which went to Pinal County.

MODEL STATE, FAILED STATE
If short-term electoral gain is the standard, Brewer’s politics are good politics. But the combination of traditional anti–big government conservatism with backlash ideology may be a recipe for disaster.

For the time being, the proponents of less government and more social Darwinism, such as State Senator Pearce, the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, and Americans for Prosperity aren’t backing down. They insist that low taxes, immigrant crackdowns, and ridding government of the burden of social services will lead to 21st-century stability and security. Groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council—which ranked Arizona third in the nation in its Economic Competitiveness Index in 2010—and the Tea Party Patriots continue to laud the Arizona model.

But as stimulus funds dry up and budget gaps widen, Arizonans are facing the stark consequences of their state government’s anti-tax ideology and fear mongering. Even Governor Brewer, confronting the impossible challenge of bridging the state’s budget-deficit abyss, is taking sober assessment of Arizona’s fundamental instability. “We face a state fiscal crisis of unparalleled dimension, one that is going to sweep over every single person in this state as well as every business and every family,” Brewer warned in January.

Of course, Arizona is not alone in its budget-crisis woes, which Brewer acknowledges are the worst in the state’s history. Many other states and local governments also confront staggering budget deficits. Some of them, such as California and North Carolina, are considering tax increases to balance their budgets. Arizona, however, has refused even to contemplate that possibility.

Most close observers of the fiscal crises besieging state governments agree that tax increases on personal and corporate income must form part of the stabilization solution. That is the position of Arizona State University economist Tom Rex, who argues that raising taxes and fees to address the fiscal crisis in his state would have a far less negative impact than would Brewer’s litany of proposed spending cuts, which, he says, will result in widespread job losses. Although tax increases inevitably carry some negative economic consequences, addressing the deficit by increasing taxes would go a long way toward staving off the kind of cyclical volatility that is roiling Arizona.

The Obama administration’s own avid enforcement of immigration laws is more shameful than Arizona’s as-yet unenforced crackdown.

Last year the state enacted a 1 percent temporary increase in the sales tax—a sign that the Republicans’ anti-tax ideology is not inflexible, but a far cry from the progressive tax reform that would help close the structural deficit. Other than that, only budget gimmicks, mandated furloughs for state employees, new debt issues, and reckless privatization schemes—along with the temporary reprieve provided by stimulus dollars—have prevented bankruptcy and government shutdown. The state treasurer is warning that issuing IOUs to state employees and debtors may be the next desperate measure.

Raising taxes is unavoidable, but so too are budget cuts. Like many other states, Arizona spends mainly in four areas: K–12 education, health care, higher education, and criminal justice and corrections. The first three have been cut dramatically, but not the fourth, which arguably creates many of the state’s costliest problems. The deepening fiscal crisis could be regarded as an opportunity not only to cut criminal justice and corrections budgets but also to overhaul a penal system that incarcerates nonviolent (and overwhelmingly nonwhite) violators of drug laws.

The ideological and corporate-driven assault on government and the public goods it offers has brought Arizona’s government—along with other states’—to its knees. At the same time, that assault has devastated the sense of common identity and community trust that has been the foundation of good governance in the United States.


Steve Rotman / Flickr (CC)

Arizona as we now know it cannot survive, even if there is another housing boom around the corner and government budgets are stabilized. The Arizona model of sprawling, low-density desert cities was built on the myths of limitless water and perpetually cheap gas and construction labor. The entire country faces the onset of climate change and energy scarcity, but no state will confront as squarely as Arizona the consequences of its patterns of unsustainable development. Instead of moving to meet the challenges of the future, Arizona is decimating educational infrastructure; it is already demonstrating its loyalty to old ideologies over long- term planning.

There are no easy fixes, but a bit of leadership from Washington on the immigration issue might go some way toward generating a problem-solving sensibility. Arizonans, like many Americans, are right to be anxious about the federal government’s largely ineffective and immensely expensive policies of border control and immigration enforcement. The surge of illegal immigration over the past two decades has in many ways enriched our economy and communities. But—occurring outside the law and in the absence of a shared national plan of sustainable economic growth—illegal immigration contributed to the erosion of our society’s sense of community.

In this context Arizona’s institution of SB 1070 may be understandable. But clearly its go-it-alone approach to a common problem only further divides Arizonans and the nation. The Obama administration is right to challenge the law; however, its own avid enforcement of immigration laws—resulting in record-breaking levels of prosecution, incarceration, and deportation of immigrants—is, in any honest assessment, more shameful than Arizona’s as-yet unenforced immigration-crackdown.

Immigration control is a federal responsibility, and it is the duty of the Obama administration and federal lawmakers (including the Arizona congressional delegation, led by John McCain) to outline for Americans a vision of sustainable immigration and to pass a just and enforceable immigration-reform package. Similarly, the federal government is responsible for drug policy, and its support for drug prohibition at home and drug wars abroad is a central cause of cross-border smuggling, mass incarceration, and horrific gang-related violence across Arizona’s border with Mexico—as well as being a major source of the rising political influence of border- security hawks.

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, border-security and anti-immigration rhetoric has been toned down a notch or two. And the enormity of the budget crisis may yet create new political space in Phoenix for realistic, less ideological debate over budget priorities.

Whether Arizona can steady itself remains to be seen. But there is little reason for optimism. America’s new model state may already be a failed state.

Copyright 2011 Boston Review. Original article published here.