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The Art Of The Empty Gesture And The Pointlessly Principled Stand: Why The Arizona Debate Is Irrelevant

by Brandon Meyer

As readers of ILW will know, the Arizona law allowing police officers to demand documentary proof of legal status whenever "reasonable suspicion" arises that a person may be undocumented, has generated considerable controversy. The sound-bite reactions were swift and pointed. "Stalinism!" "Un-American!" "Nazism!" "About Time!" "Long Overdue!" "Fascism!" "Patriotic!" "Racism!" "Power to the People!" "George Bushism (yes, some people just can't let this go)!" Opinions may vary, but they are certainly polarized.

Nevertheless, while the Arizona law has allowed people on both sides of the debate to wheel out their best rhetorical flourishes, the entire debate is based on a series of false premises, false promises, and flimsy strawman arguments that largely misses the bigger picture.

The Arizona law is of zero long-term relevance. Why? Just like the long-deceased California Proposition 187, the Arizona law won't withstand legal scrutiny, pure and simple. Why, you might ask, would Arizona enact a law that has no chance of surviving legal challenges and is otherwise unworkable? Politics is the simple answer. Politics is not about solving problems. Solving problems is what bureaucrats and the judiciary are supposed to do. Politics is about timeserving and rent-seeking behavior. Politics is about getting elected, getting reelected, and hoping to secure a nice, cushy post-political life. Therefore, it is irrelevant to the backers of the Arizona law if the law withstands legal challenge or whether the law delivers what it promises. What matters is that the backers have seized upon a preexisting mood in Arizona to secure some additional name recognition and signal to those concerned about illegal immigration that they can be counted on to advance their agenda. What opponents of the Arizona law, especially those who live far away from Arizona, fail to understand is that backers of the Arizona law are tapping into legitimate concerns of the Arizona electorate. The solution to the problem just happens to be fatally flawed.

Gordon Lightfoot once sang, "sometimes it feels like a sin when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again." Backers of the Arizona should therefore adopt Mr. Lightfoot's "Sundown" as their theme song. Failure of the law to withstand legal challenge would be a better outcome for backers than would a failure of the law to work as promised in practice. Backers of the law could stand tall and shout from the rooftops that they had a solution to the problem, but the feckless and unpatriotic within the ranks of the Justice Department or the judiciary stepped into thwart the will of the people. This is akin to those who claim that Marxism really hasn't failed (notwithstanding its failure in the Soviet Union and countless other countries); it just hasn't been properly implemented in practice. Nevertheless, the sooner the Arizona law is invalidated, the brighter the reflected glory will be for its supporters. The last thing the law's supporter's want is for it to have an extended run in practice and then fail miserably. That way, they don't need to worry about being tarnished and discredited with the inevitable failure of the law in practice. This tactic of advancing a solution that you know is bound to fail can be termed the "Art of the Empty Gesture."

Politicians love the Art of the Empty Gesture. Remember Candidate Obama's promise to Ohio voters during the 2008 Democratic primary that his administration would conduct a full review of the NAFTA agreement?1 The crowd cheered. Obama won the Ohio primary on his way to subsequent election. Sixteen months into the Obama Administration, the comprehensive review of NAFTA has sank into oblivion without a trace. American politicians are not the only politicians fond of the Art of the Empty Gesture. When the Arizona law went into effect, Mexico's President Felipe Calderon jumped with both feet into the fray with his charges that the Arizona law was "racist." While that may be true, Mr. Calderon should pay more attention to how his own country treats migrants. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, migrants in Mexico are facing "a major human rights crisis." The report also details official complicity and participation in a variety of systematic abuses of migrants.2 Then again, why would Mr. Calderon pass up the opportunity for a cheap and easy soundbite about domestic American politics in favor of seeking to develop a real solution to his own country's systematic mistreatment of Guatemalan and Nicaraguan migrants? Nobody in Mexico cares about that.

Also popular among politicians is the "Pointlessly Principled Stand." For instance, did the late Alabama Governor George Wallace really think that he could withstand the full force of the federal government as he stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama's Foster Auditorium in his bid to halt desegregation of the school on June 11, 1963? Of course not, but his Pointlessly Principled Stand propelled him to national political prominence, three subsequent reelections as Alabama Governor, and earned him the title of the "most influential loser" in 20th Century American politics.3 That's what truly mattered to Governor Wallace. After all, we're still talking about his actions nearly 50 years later. The same cynical calculations are at play here, so the vitriol heaped on the law's supporters, while largely justified, plays right into their hands.

Last, but not least, politicians love a soft target. Think of the recent congressional hearings on Goldman Sachs. The greedy and the sleazy being taken to task in front of the television cameras. What a priceless opportunity to kick the unpopular as they lay on the ground. There is no downside risk to the politicians doing the kicking. Illegal immigrants are a soft target, so why not the join the mob if you need greater name recognition? Soft targets come and go. Eventually, the law's political backers will move onto to greener pastures for the next political boost.

In conclusion, opponents of the Arizona law should sit back and let nature take its course. The law will die a natural death soon enough. Activist opponents of the Arizona law are really bolstering the law's supporters under the notion that any publicity is good publicity.

On the Flip Side: Why CIR will fail as badly as the Arizona law.

Supporters of Comprehensive Immigration Reform ("CIR"), of which I am included, often portray CIR as the silver bullet. "If we could just enact a workable solution, then the problems of illegal immigration will disappear" is often the underlying rhetoric used by CIR supporters. This position is as nonsensical as supporters of the Arizona law claiming that it will purge their state of the negative impact of illegal immigration.

CIR, whatever form it will ultimately take, will simply be nothing more than a 1986-style amnesty Part II at the end of the day. While CIR may be effective in legalizing the currently undocumented, it will only provide a temporary solution unless CIR also contains a provision that will make Mexico and Central America an administrative protectorate of the United States. No CIR, however well constructed or intentioned, can address the root causes of unauthorized immigration. The politically incorrect root causes of unauthorized immigration into the United States include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The United States is a wealthy nation with a large, poor nation to its immediate south that is a failed narco-state with an implicit, long-term policy of attempting to solve its endemic poverty by exporting its surplus labor to the United States, then artificially boosting domestic demand from remittance income. CIR will do nothing to solve the chronic misgovernance and poverty of Mexico.
  • To the south of Mexico are a succession of smaller failed states that have also adopted an implicit policy of exporting its people to the United States and eagerly collecting remittance income. CIR will not address this point.
  • The visa waiver countries of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain are in various stages of economic collapse. Hopping on a plane to New York or Los Angeles and taking up residence have never been easier, nor have the incentives been greater. While these countries will eventually recover, they will certainly be replaced by new crisis countries. CIR will not solve this problem.
  • The Bush Administration's decision to add several Eastern European countries to the Visa Waiver program also makes it easier for people to leave their countries and head for the United States and join the ranks of illegal immigrants. Again, CIR cannot impact the political and economic conditions in Latvia, Lithuania or Poland.
  • CIR will only address the problem of today's undocumented and will do nothing to truly address the worldwide economic and political conditions that create the incentives which make becoming an illegal immigrant to the United States so attractive to so many people.

Thus, CIR has been overblown and oversold and many of its advocates are either being disingenuous or delusional about what CIR can truly achieve. If CIR Part II becomes a reality in 2011 or 2012, CIR Part III will become just as imperative by 2036 or 2037. This point should not be taken as a reason not to enact CIR. Rather, it's simply my attempt to inject a little realism into a debate that has drifted so far off its rhetorical moorings that it has lost sight of the shoreline.

This article initially appeared on

End Notes

1See Brandon Meyer, "Free Trade Agreements, Visas, and the Art of Suboptimal Outcomes: Was the Theory of the Second Best Ever Good Enough?" Immigration Briefings, June 2008, p.3.

2"Mexico accused over migrant abuse." April 28, 2010

3See Carter, Dan T. (1995). The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 468. ISBN 0807125970 and Lesher, Stephan (1994). George Wallace: American Populist. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. p. xi. ISBN 0201622106.

About The Author

Brandon Meyer is an Associate Attorney at International Immigration Services, PA, a full service immigration law firm with offices in Naples, FL (head office), San Diego, CA, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Mr. Meyer oversees the San Diego, CA office. This article initially appeared on

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.