Why Arizona?

Given perceptions of the state nationally, many people were probably not surprised when Arizona passed the most stringent immigration law in recent history.

What might surprise some is that immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Arizona. A combination of simmering trends, recently brought to a boil, explains how Arizona emerged both as a major immigrant destination and also as a place with an image of immigration totally out of control.

Arizona’s law, defended by supporters as a necessary antidote to federal failures and opposed by those who say it’s discriminatory, requires police to check the legal status of people they stop or arrest. If they are found to be lacking proper documentation, they will be detained on immigration violations.

Three powerful currents led directly to its passage:

The rise in illegal immigration passing through Arizona
Until recently, most immigrants avoided crossing the border in Arizona due to the treacherous conditions of the Sonoran desert. Starting with a revamped border enforcement effort, Operation Hold-the-Line in El Paso in 1993, followed by Operation Gatekeeper along the California border, the U.S. Border Patrol began to effectively shut down the most heavily-trafficked areas along the border. Because the enforcement action had been elsewhere, the Arizona border was also more lightly-patrolled in the 1990s. With successful strategies at the most common crossing places, the Southwest border was seemingly brought under control.

The result was smugglers and would-be immigrants adjusted course and began funneling through remote areas that had historically seen much less traffic.

The Border Patrol responded by extending their strategic enforcement from the San Diego and El Paso sectors and into Arizona. By 2000, Arizona’s apprehensions spiked, making up 43 percent of all arrests in that year, up from less than 8 percent in 1994.

Coincident with the border efforts in the latter 1990s was a booming national economy, creating jobs and housing demand. New routes were charted through Arizona at precisely the moment metropolitan Phoenix was taking off as a regional growth center in the Mountain West.

The economic boom, migration and population expansion in Arizona
Immigrant workers, both legal and illegal who might have only passed through the state in the mid-1990s on their way to jobs in other regions now had reasons to stay: a plentiful supply of jobs, particularly in construction and associated industries.

Metropolitan Phoenix saw expansive growth–nearly 1 million jobs, or 141 percent– added between 1980 and 2000, while the U.S. grew total jobs by only a rate of 46 percent during the same period, according to federal data. Between 2000 and 2007, Phoenix’s growth continued as it added 336,000 jobs (21 percent), while the nation’s grew by only 4.4 percent. This kind of job growth goes hand-in-hand with population growth, and by mid-decade, the city of Phoenix overtook Philadelphia to become the nation’s fifth largest city. Its metropolitan population mushroomed from 1.6 million in 1980 to nearly 4.3 million in 2008.

Like fast-growing Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Las Vegas, Phoenix was an affordable option for many middle-class families. The Census Bureau estimates Phoenix’s population grew by 29 percent, or 800,000 people, between 2000 and 2008, while the foreign-born population grew even faster at 49 percent, an additional 225,000 immigrants.

Demographic change and public opinion
Arizona’s magnetism drew U.S.-born and foreign-born residents seeking jobs, new housing and a promising future. By 2008, only 36 percent of Arizona’s population was born in the state, versus places like Michigan and Pennsylvania with over 80 percent nativity rates. The share of Arizona’s population made up of immigrants nearly doubled between 1990 and 2008 to 14 percent. Of the nearly 1 million foreign-born residents, half are estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center to be unauthorized.

This dynamism, a sign of growth and progress during economic good times, can feel transitory and alienating during a severe downturn.

Since the fall of 2007, Phoenix lost nearly 12 percent of its jobs, one of the worst declines among all metropolitan areas during the recession.

Few states saw greater growth in their child population in this decade. With shrinking state and local budgets, the half million children in Arizona that have at least one foreign-born parent can feel like a burden, especially if the perception — true or not — is that their parents are in the United States without legal status. The widening gulf between the aging white population and the growing nonwhite child population can provoke competition and conflict about public spending.

Adding high profile, drug-related violence on the border to this swift demographic transformation and the mixture is ripe for “the locals” and elected officials in Arizona to turn on immigrants.

Finally, public opinion can be easily swayed by polemic leaders, especially if they are up for re-election, the least surprising development of all.