Claims muddle debate over Arizona immigration law

Arizona sparked an emotional war of words with its tough illegal-immigration enforcement law, a national debate in which both sides make wild claims and distortions that fuel divisiveness.

Cutting through the political rhetoric is difficult. Even then, it’s impossible to know exactly how the law will play out.

Experts who study the complicated economics of immigration are skeptical of claims that the controversial law’s supporters make about the beneficial impact on crime, taxes, jobs, schools and government costs. Likewise, some national critics of the state statute have misrepresented parts of the legislation. Other opponents, particularly in the blogosphere, pile on over-the-top language that compares Arizona to Nazi Germany. In an extreme instance, the liberal Daily Kos blog has repeatedly referred to the statute as an “ethnic cleansing law.”

Previous federal and state immigration-related laws also came with positive or dire economic forecasts that never panned out, said Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis.

“People exaggerate on both the upside and the downside, depending on your point of view,” he said.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, viral YouTube videos, blogs and 24-hours-a-day cable-television news, information – and misinformation – spreads faster than ever. As the recent battle over health-care reform demonstrated, it’s difficult to dispute a concept (such as, say, “death panels”) once it takes root in the public’s consciousness. Likewise, supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have had trouble countering the pervasive charge that they are promoting “amnesty” for undocumented workers already in the country.

Arizona’s far-reaching law, which takes effect July 29, provides enough legitimate fodder for an all-out policy argument on the roles of states in immigration enforcement, which is recognized as a federal government responsibility. Arizona has made it a state crime to be in the United States illegally and requires local police to pursue the immigration status of people they reasonably suspect might be undocumented. Opponents blast the law as unconstitutional not only because they believe Arizona has overstepped its authority but also because they predict it will lead to civil-rights abuses.

Four lawsuits have been filed, and more are expected.

Despite the rhetoric, the law’s ultimate impact on various social issues might surprise backers and foes alike.

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