I write this commentary on the day that a federal judge decided to green-light Section 2B, the “show me your papers” provision, of Arizona’s SB 1070, thus clearing the way for the most controversial portion of this law to take effect. State and local police in Arizona will now be required to verify the legal status of individuals they lawfully stop, detain, or arrest if they have reasonable suspicion that the individual is an undocumented immigrant. Public officials supporting this law contend that SB 1070 is necessary and that undocumented immigrants living and working in Arizona pose a far greater risk and cost the state much more than the law’s potential for widespread racial profiling.
A central finding in the article by Amuedo-Dorantes et al. is that such tough-on-immigration policies, designed either at the federal or state level, do not have a consequential impact on undocumented immigrants’ experiences in securing social, legal, and health-related services. They observe that their finding falls in line with previous studies that have pointed at the inefficacy of similar policies in “stemming the flow” of undocumented immigrants. But if these policies do not seem to alter the immigrants’ experiences, why then do officials in several states around the country argue forcefully for their adoption because they supposedly change immigrants’ lives significantly? Why would arguments persist that implementing tough policies make conditions for undocumented immigrants so difficult, especially in the areas of social services, that immigrants will “self-deport”? Why would the Arizona officials insist that SB 1070 is necessary?
There are several potential reasons for why these laws are adopted, but I would like to briefly discuss one that is implied in the Amuedo-Dorantes et al. article. Even though their data show no effects of these laws on accessing social, legal, and health services, they observe that such policies do appear to instill a fear of deportation among those migrants who return to Mexico voluntarily and to lessen a desire to return to the United States among those who are deported. The picture they paint with their data, collected among voluntary and deported returnees in a border city in Mexico, might not have captured the full importance of this point.
Data collected in the United States, either in the states with E-Verify mandates, such as Arizona, or in states with more relaxed laws to which immigrants move to escape draconian laws in other states, might have led to a different picture. This picture would not necessarily contradict the second point Amuedo-Dorantes et al. make (i.e., that the enactment of such measures increases the fear of deportation and reduces the internal mobility of voluntary returnees), but rather might have provided a more in-depth examination of this important point.
For instance, research conducted in the United States, based on data collected among immigrants who are at risk of deportation or likely to leave the country voluntarily as a result of the enactment of harsh laws, has noted that immigrants do alter their lives in direct reaction to the implementation of these laws. For example, Gonzales and Chavez (2012) documented how 1.5-generation undocumented immigrants changed not only their plans for the future but also most of their daily routines and behaviors in direct response to contemporary laws that target them as criminals. These immigrants live in fear of being detected, detained, and deported, and that is why many of them avoid at all costs any contact with officials, including those with officers in education and health services (see also Yoshikawa 2011). But the effects of these laws often go beyond the targeted individuals because undocumented immigrants do not live in isolation from legal immigrants and U.S. citizens (see Menjívar and Kanstroom forthcoming). Thus, the U.S.-citizens, either spouses or parents and children of undocumented immigrants, are also profoundly affected as they fear that a loved one may be deported at any moment. In places where these draconian laws are implemented with particular zeal, such as in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the effect is deep and broad and fear is widespread.
Furthermore, Amuedo-Dorantes and her colleagues note that, although these pieces of legislation may seem to have a deterring effect on these immigrants, this effect may be short-lived. This may be the case among a specific population at a particular point in time. However, research today also has pointed to the long-term effects of current legislation on the life chances of immigrants, with the potential to obstruct or derail paths of incorporation (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Menjívar and Abrego 2012; Yoshikawa 2011).
The variables examined in the study—access to social services and fear of deportation—are, in practice, deeply intertwined when one examines the lives of undocumented immigrants, and their families, who live in the United States. What binds these together is the fear of detection and deportation, so that even parents of U.S.-born children avoid accessing the social services to which their children have a right. Since it is practically impossible to round up and deport every undocumented immigrant, these policies aim at creating fear. Thus, data collected among returnees in Mexico may not fully capture how undocumented immigrants in states with E-Verify and similar policies experience such legislation, and how their lives are now subject to further exploitation, abuse, and wage theft (Johnson and Hill 2011), precisely because of their fear of detection.