A reader writes:
You asked, "So why the uptick in anti-illegal hysteria now?" Is that a rhetorical question or are you honestly puzzled? The answer is obvious. Anti-illegal hysteria is about economic uncertainty, always has been. Illegals provide a convenient scapegoat in bad times, just like Muslims (and in the past, Jews). Disturbing and at moments frightening? Yes. A mystery? No.
William Finnegan has perhaps the best synopsis in a New Yorker piece from a couple weeks ago: "Yet anti-immigrant backlashes don’t always track closely with actual immigration. They track with unemployment, popular anxiety, and a fear of displacement by strangers."
Another recommends this piece by John Judis from a few months back. Another writes:
Simple: Election year race-baiting. It's the current evolution of the Southern Strategy, and is part and parcel with the freak-out over the New Black Panther Party, the attempt to make Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP into a scandal, and the fear-mongering over the "ground zero mosque."
From my perspective as an Arizona resident, the hysteria here has been steady for at least the past six years, well before the recession.
Russell Pearce, the GOP state senator who loves to dress himself in the American flag, has been the sponsor of every anti-illegal measure that's come down the pike this decade. As an anti-illegal immigrant zealot and media opportunist, he is matched locally only by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. For the bills that don't pass, Pearce and his GOP allies just convert them into ballot initiatives for the voters to approve, which they always do overwhelmingly. Pearce now has national allies like Kris Kobach, a former Kansas City law professor and current GOP candidate for Kansas secretary of state who helped draft SB1070. The next act in Pearce's legislative assault will take on the 14th Amendment and push a bill to prohibit Arizona from issuing a birth certificate to a child born here if one of the parents is undocumented. The unhinged right has a memorably derisive catch phrase, as they often do, for these U.S.-citizens: anchor babies.
When Janet Napolitano was governor, she served as a balance against the legislative excesses of our GOP-controlled legislature and vetoed some of these bills, just as she no doubt would have in the case of SB1070 had she still been in office. After Napolitano was tapped by Obama as secretary of Homeland Security, her successor stipulated by the constitution was secretary of state Jan Brewer, a Republican who ironically has always opposed that line of succession because it could lead to a replacement governor who was not of the same party or ticket that the voters had placed in office. Brewer has long favored creating an office of lieutenant governor, the candidate for which would run on the same ticket as the governor. (This is now a proposition that will appear on our ballot in November.)
But to return to your original question, this anti-immigrant hysteria is just another instance in the long tradition of desperate politicians who appropriate easy targets of popular disapproval to shift attention from their own shortcomings and bolster their chances for election. With Bush, the symbol was gay couples kissing in front of city halls and courthouses. With Gingrich, the symbol is an Islamic mosque in proximity of Ground Zero. And with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer - who never vocally supported SB1070 before or after it passed our legislature until the day she signed it into law - it's the symbol of illegal immigrants in our midst, and the fear that they're threatening our culture and taking our jobs. It's a fear she finds the need to embellish, in light of Arizona's dismal economy, with her patently false claims that most illegal immigrants enter our state as drug-smuggling human mules, and that their beheaded corpses are showing up in our desert. And John McCain is right along with her in spreading the hysteria, saying on Bill O'Reilly's show that SB1070 was necessary, among other reasons, because illegal immigrants are "intentionally causing accidents on our freeways".
Does any of this come as a surprise in light of the fact that Republicans control Arizona's legislature and Arizona now has, on a per-capita basis, the largest budget deficit of any state in the nation?