Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Arizona Immigration Law: what the Amherst Select Board actually said and did

Now that a judge has granted the federal government’s request for an injunction to stop key portions of the new Arizona immigration law from going into effect last week, it may be time to take a calm look back at what happened in Amherst, which got some people riled up. As it happened, I was the one who ended up presenting the background on the issue at the Select Board meeting on June 7, so I should be able to provide a fairly straightforward overview.

In a nutshell: the Amherst Select Board received two citizen requests, asking the town to take various actions in protest against what they described as the discriminatory measures of the new Arizona state Immigration law. We agreed to endorse a stop to economic dealings with the state, although rejecting the clauses calling for any action above and beyond this.

There is no scientific sampling of opinion. The video interviews that the Springfield Republican posted were generally nuanced and thoughtful.

The talkbacks and other responses in the Daily Hampshire Gazette were in many cases very harsh. Those in the  Republican were both more numerous and overwhelmingly hostile and even nasty, though that may be both because they come from outside the local area and because access to the site (unlike that of the Gazette) is free and does not require a subscription. (This is where the science comes in.)

At any rate, the main charges were:

1) typical Amherst idiocy!
2) bet you stupid people didn’t even read the law!
3) typical Amherst idiocy!

Some representative ones:
And I will make it a point to NOT buy, NOT drive through, NOT recommend any purchase, NOR visit or support your anti-U.S.A. mentality.

...wingnuts to the right of me, moonbats to the left, here I am stuck in the middle with who?
This is insane.
Don't these panderers realize what Arizona is going through? ...What do you expect from a place that tries to ban flying the flag.
I can see why Boston, Springfield, and Holyoke are pandering to their Hispanic populations (which this law doesn't even effect), but lily-white Amherst? What's the matter Amherst, Don't want to showed up by the big boys? Hey I'm sure Arizona is really going to miss you pinheads
I don't have to boycott Amherst, nothing there interests me.

You know, I was going to be my usual sarcastic self but I'm so disgusted I literally want to puke. Self righteous, self important, elitist, divisive, American tradition and value loathing hypocrites who are willing to slander and hurt fellow Americans for the temerity of trying to protect their communities against the consequences of mass illegal immigration.

You have to consider the source here...I mean Amherst...? They are a bunch of backwards left over hippies from the sixties. No suprise here, just a bunch of quacks.

I plan to boycott Amherst and the colleges that my 3 were looking at... as if AZ needed business from Amherst! They should be boycotting the illegals here in America, not those trying to stop it, what a @@&$#@ up town!

I feel for the few hard working regular residents of Amherst who have to deal with those self righteous, holier-than-thou clowns on a daily basis. Worse part is that if they vote the moonbats out, they'll only be replaced by other moonbats

Just another meaningless political gesture by guilt-ridden neurotic white people.

Hey! That's what Amherst is all about!
Amherst never fails to demonstrate how stupid the residents really are.

a true embarrassment...Standard uber-liberals that didn't read the law, research the issue or try to empathize.

I don't bother going there anymore because it's just old hippies sniffing their own farts.

These are a scary, no RABID bunch of people, no doubt about that.
hahahahaha reminds me of a Southpark Episode...

If these Bozo's in Amherst would read the Arizona Law, they would discover that Arizona is simply following the (already passed) law of the USA. Sheesh.. I'll have to make it a point not to do any business in Amherst and much more support for Arizona!

Clearly the Select panel approves of the drugs, violence and crime. Throw in a few kidnappings a murders for good measure. According to Amherst these activities are just fine.

Today I will be making my LAST trip to Amherst for the forseable future. The ONLY reason I will be going there is to tell my friends at Adventure Outfitters and the Soup-er-bowl that they will be lossing my business until Amherst's elected officials come down off their high horses.

Why would anything this bunch of idiots does surprise anyone? Remember, this is the place where cop killers and terrorists are put on a pedestal. But if you smoke outdoors they want to lock you up.

F Amherst.....plain and simple.

Ahhh, Amherst, the bastion of liberal fascism here in the North East. How the hell can anybody live in a town where you can't fly the flag except on holidays and that allows the High school to put on the Vagina Monologs and not West Side Story. Skewed liberal policies. Boycott Amherst. Or better yet, send all of Arizona's illegals there.
Many of the critics who said we had not read the law evidently came from towns outside Amherst and had therefore read only the brief account in the newspaper and not seen the meeting on local-access cable television. You can watch the recording and judge for yourself (I invite you to do so), but here, at least, it will be simpler if I just tell you.

The charge that we did not know or read the law is simply false. It rests on two assumptions: that we are lazy and stupid, and that we wouldn’t understand what we read anyway. Now, to assume that a critic has not studied the idea or text that he criticizes is, sadly, often not an unreasonable assumption in political life in general (we can all think of examples), but in this case, it would be wrong. I made a point of circulating the full text of the law as well as a sample of commentary, for and against (see below, at the end of this piece) to members of the Board prior to the meeting. In fact, one can see us referring to the document in the course of the discussion. The corollary assumption is that, if we did read it, we must not have understood it. In the minds of these critics, the measure was simply enforcing existing federal law, so if we opposed it, obviously, we were a pack of loony left America-haters.

the text of SB 1070 at the Select Board
I began by trying to relieve some of the tension with a touch of humor and historical perspective by pointing out that, by some standards, the proverbial Colonial forefathers who came to these shores from Europe centuries ago were also “illegal immigrants,” who were nonetheless allowed to stay.

I observed, as a point of departure: it is self-evident that every nation has the right to determine standards of citizenship and residency, and consequently, to control its borders. That is part of the definition of sovereignty. According to that principle, then, there are by definition "legal" and "illegal" immigrants. No one can argue with that, though that says nothing about what specific sorts of laws we should create in order to regulate immigration.   And for that matter, I added, I was glad to live in a country that people were dying to get into rather than out of.

Turning to the law itself (SB 1070), I noted that it was long—running to some 16 dense pages—and complex, but that the key disagreements could nonetheless be boiled down to a few essential points.

Proponents of the law argued that it was filling a gap left by the central government, and thus merely enforcing existing federal law. The most controversial portions involved the clauses allowing law enforcement officers, "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States" to make "a reasonable attempt. . . to determine the immigration status of the person."  It sounds harmless enough.  Proponents of the law point to the repeated use of the term, "reasonable," and insist that the measure cannot be unfair because discrimination—including racial profling—is illegal in Arizona and the rest of the nation. Although one argument against the law is that it violates the so-called “supremacy clause” by usurping the rights of the federal government (and it was on these most neutral grounds that the court granted the recent injunction), it was nonetheless the prospect of discrimination that most exercised opponents. They worry that it would in practice be very hard to prevent the slide into profiling: after all, who—a person of what ethnicity or appearance—is most likely to be asked to prove citizenship? The issue is thus not so much that illegals might be caught and punished, and rather, that American citizens or legal aliens who just happen to look foreign might be humiliated by being forced to prove themselves legitimate when Anglo-Americans are subjected to no such test. A subsidiary concern voiced by civil liberties groups was that illegal aliens might be scared not only to report crimes against themselves, but also to report or serve as witnesses involving crimes against others. In other words, the law seemed to risk creating as many problems as it hoped to solve. (Although I did not mention this in my explanation, it is also notable that a number of law enforcement officials—the Chief of Police of Phoenix, among the first—opposed the law as creating an unenforceable goal and impossible burden.)

Polls showed that, although there is considerable national popular support for heightened enforcement of immigration laws, it is precisely over the aforementioned dilemmas that the consensus begins to break down. To be sure, some opponents indulged in inflammatory rhetoric, calling the law racist or even “Nazi.”  That was stupid and inappropriate.  Responsible opponents rejected this language and such extreme analogies, simply arguing that the law was unnecessary and threatened to divide rather than unite the country. They do not deny that there is a problem, but they see the solution in comprehensive national reform of immigration policy, not ad hoc regional measures.

The Select Board deliberated thoughtfully on the measure for far longer than the 25 minutes allotted on the agenda. I should add that this is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the more cautious and restrained Select Boards in recent Amherst history (and much of the public seems to agree; 1, 2, 3). We are well aware of jurisdictional boundaries and the proper limits of our collective powers and voices. Most of us are on record as, in one way or another, evincing considerable skepticism toward actions that register a symbolic but otherwise ineffectual protest against one policy or another that lies far beyond the scope of normal local government. This is what Select Board member Alisa Brewer was referring to when she was quoted as being opposed to “resolutions.”

In the end, we therefore declined to endorse any of the requested actions that went beyond our local control, e.g. urging that the Major League All-Star Game not be held in Arizona. much less, endorsing “the repeal of NAFTA and the decriminalization of certain drugs” in hopes of “making illegal immigration. . . [from Latin America] less necessary and attractive.” (As the discussion unfolded, the petitioner himself therefore withdrew his request for the latter.) We moreover declined to endorse Select Board member Diana Stein’s suggestion that we adopt the more flamboyant language of a California Democratic group that denounced the law and/or its supporters as racist and xenophobic. As I argued, decent people could disagree about the merits of the legislation, and as I did not claim to be able to see into the hearts of opponents and had no desire to accuse anyone of racism, I preferred to restrict our statement to the narrower topic of the law and its possible consequences.

The Select Board unanimously endorsed the slimmed-down resolution. I believe that we thought long and hard and perhaps agonized over how to vote in this case, given our general reluctance in such matters. That we nonetheless voted as one is therefore notable. It should not, however, be seen as a reflection of “just Amherst” or anything of the sort. The call for locales to cease business dealings with Arizona was part of a mainstream nationwide movement of modest protest, not unlike others of recent decades. Many major professional organizations, for example, declined to hold conventions in states that had not endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and many also boycotted Arizona when it rejected the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of you will have noted how the Phoenix Suns donned jerseys reading, “Los Suns.” In this case, city councils across the country had already debated and endorsed boycotts—among them San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boulder, Columbus, Hartford, Boston.

It was at once irritating and amusing to see readers talk of boycotting Amherst as a result of our decision to boycott Arizona. It is of course never pleasant to see strangers attack one’s town or one’s own motives, especially when the charges are baseless and the language vicious. Still, there was a humorous side. Those who threatened to boycott Amherst evidently did not understand that this was part of a national movement, endorsed by perfectly sane people in "normal" communities. Boston Mayor Tom Menino (who, last I checked, was no flaming radical) was a determined supporter of the boycott:
As the City Council passed a resolution urging that Boston cut business ties with Arizona, Menino said it was important to send “a message’’ that the city disagrees with that state’s response to illegal immigration.

“It’s a message saying America is a land of opportunity,’’ he said. “Now there’s one little state out there saying, we don’t want that land of opportunity. We want to be isolationists.’’

Menino added, “To say you’re not welcome in your state to work, that’s wrong. This country was built on immigrants. My grandfather, so many other folks, came to America looking for that hope of a better future.’’
So, my response to that was: if you want to boycott us for our action—fine, but if you’re consistent, you’ll also have to boycott Boston and Hartford. So that means: no more flying in and out of Logan and Bradley airports. No more Boston Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins games. No more Sam Adams beer.

The point is not to engage in tit-for-tat exchanges, and rather, to demonstrate that our action, though not endorsed by all residents, had a solid and responsible rationale and was hardly lunatic or extreme.

A few weeks later, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin observed:
In recent days, our sister paper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, published a series of letters that criticize the Select Board for voting to boycott goods and services from Arizona because of a law it enacted. One writer urged "fair-minded Americans" to boycott Amherst itself -- and even named a "very good" Amherst business that will no longer receive his trade.

Anger over the town's stand on Arizona law SB 1070 brings this issue home in a new way. What issue is it? A complicated one, to be sure, that includes many sore places on the body politic.
After reviewing the pros and cons, the editorial concluded:
Supporters of the law say Americans have every right to protect the country from unlawful residents, some of whom we know to be responsible for violence on the border that has claimed the lives of law-enforcement officers. This perspective plays hourly on TV and radio programs.

Some of the letters we've received echo the tone of broadcasts that accuse people like those on the Select Board - "moonbats," one local writer called them - of taking leave of their senses.

It is hard to stomach the fact, though, that the law all but sanctions racial or ethnic profiling. By design, officers will be requesting papers from people with brown skin, not white.

Those who have pushed back, including not just Amherst but members of the Boston City Council, cite a desire to speak out against an erosion of civil rights. They are calling Arizona out for resorting to one of America's least flattering reflexes: a nativist contempt for immigrants.

The resolution Amherst adopted June 7 directs the town manager to make sure no town money is spent on products or services that originate in Arizona. It urges residents to act similarly. These kinds of boycotts are, of course, symbolic. Amherst took a principled stand against a law its leaders believe degrades human rights. Yes, the place it is happening is 2,600 miles away. No, that's not a compelling reason to ignore it.

It was the unanimous view of the Select Board that there is merit in adding the town's name to the list of American communities unhappy with the Arizona law. If the people of Amherst don't want their town's top board to tackle questions like this, they can order up changes at the next town election.

The power of the voting booth is as clear a feature of the political process as the movement that gave rise to the Arizona law. Unlike others, we will not fault Amherst for living in our times - and wanting to engage with them.
As I said at the Select Board meeting, the issue is complex: decent people can disagree about it. I myself have friends on both sides of the issue, and we still speak to one another. Some of us may even share common hopes and fears but disagree on how best to address them. In the end, we all have to live together in the same country.

 * * *
Documents consulted by the Select Board prior to the meeting

original packet

additional documents and opinion pieces that I distributed:

• the full text of the Arizona Law (SB 1070)

• Kris W. Kobach, "Why Arizona Drew a Line," NY Times, 28 April
[defense of the measure—its legality and fairness—by a man who helped to draft it]
• Jonah Goldberg, "Arizona's Ugly But Necessary Immigration Law:  There are many government functions that are unappealing to one extent or another; that is not in itself an argument against them," National Review Online, 28 April
• PEW Research Center:  "Public Supports Arizona Immigration Law: Democrats Divided, But Support Provisions"
• La Raza:  Boycott Intolerance:  "What's Wrong With the Law?"
• American Civil Liberties Union, "Arizona Immigration Law Threatens Civil Rights and Public Safety, Says ACLU"
• Anti-Defamation League:  "ADL Laments Arizona Governer Brewer's Decision to Sign SB 1070 into Law" and "Arizona Law Endangers America's Immigrant Heritage"

* * *

Local press coverage

• Scott Merzbach, "Area campaign gears up vs. Arizona immigration law," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 June
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst Arizona boycott resolution approved by Select Board," The Republican, 7 June
•  Scott Merzbach, "Amherst OKs Arizona Boycott," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 8 June [abridged as:]
• Scott Merzbach, "Amherst Boycotts Arizona," Amherst Bulletin, 11 June
• "Amherst's Arizona boycott:  Reactions to the Select Board's resolution [video]," The Republican Newsroom, 11 June

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