I got a letter the other day from Joe Arpaio — Sheriff Joe Arpaio, that is, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., scourge of undocumented immigrants and of anyone who might look like one. He was, remarkably enough, asking me for money to combat an effort to recall him from the office he has held for 20 self-aggrandizing years.
How Sheriff Arpaio — or more precisely, his direct-mail contractor — got my home address and what list my name could have been on to suggest that I would be receptive to his request is a puzzle. I’ve been nothing if not critical of how Arizona treats its immigrant population. I cheered last June when the Supreme Court invalidated much of the state’s famously mean-spirited anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070. Sheriff Arpaio’s warning in his letter about the consequences of a successful recall was hardly calculated to make me reach for my checkbook: “Open Border Liberals will be the winner as they want nothing more than to get rid of a tough Arizona Sheriff that will never back down.”
Before the 80-year-old sheriff won national fame for exercising self help in enforcing his own personal immigration policy, he was known for his punitive attitude toward prison inmates in his custody. In 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union sued him over the obstacle he placed in the path of pregnant prisoners seeking to exercise their right to abortion. Even when the prisoners offered to pay for their transportation and security, as well as for the abortions, the sheriff required the women to obtain a court order directing him to provide the transportation.
When an Arizona appeals court ruled that this unwritten policy amounted to an unconstitutional burden on the right to abortion, Mr. Arpaio appealed to the Supreme Court. In March 2008, the court turned him down and let the state court’s ruling stand. The A.C.L.U. had to threaten him with contempt proceedings to get him to comply with the court order.
As I was pondering Sheriff Arpaio’s mysterious letter as well as his impact on the country’s public life, the news broke that the Colorado Legislature had given final approval to a law permitting undocumented residents of the state to obtain driver’s licenses. Colorado will join a handful of other states, including New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Maryland, that have taken this step to enable immigrants to come out of the shadows and drive lawfully once they pass an ordinary driving test.
Connecticut’s legislative leaders and governor have endorsed similar legislation, which is expected to pass soon there. “Why do we even ask where somebody is coming from?” Connecticut’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, asked at a news conference in Hartford last month. The important thing, the governor added, was to “make sure that our highways and byways are being driven by people who have a skills set necessary to drive on our roads.” Rhode Island may soon join the list as well.
What’s the connection between Sheriff Arpaio and the driver’s license developments? Simply this: the states’ turn on driver’s licenses suggests that the sheriff, representing for so long the leading edge of anti-immigrant political activism, may by now have become the trailing edge. He once embodied public anger about the country’s porous borders, a rage that seemed to freeze out common sense as well as compassion and to make rational discourse impossible. Now he’s a cranky old man clinging to his job so desperately that his direct mail operation comes up with the likes of me.
That the pendulum is swinging away from the Joe Arpaios of the immigration debate is clear from the (mostly) serious conversation going on now in Washington. Of course the changed tone is due in good measure to the rising power of the Latino vote. And of course the effort may yet crumble in a dysfunctional Congress. That makes all the more significant what’s happening in the states.
Consider that Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who signed that state’s new driver’s license bill a few weeks ago, had blocked such a measure in 2008, saying then that no one should be able to drive in Maryland without proof of legal residency.
Consider what happened in 2007 when Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York announced that the state, as a matter of executive-branch policy, would begin offering licenses to undocumented residents. The immediate pushback was tremendous, and Governor Spitzerabandoned his plan two months later. “You don’t need a stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the public on this one,” he said at the time.
While New York politicians haven’t yet mustered the courage to tackle the issue again, it’s clear that the anti-immigrant spasm that seized the country after 9/11 has eased. Republican efforts last month to exploit the foreign origins of the Boston Marathon bombers achieved no traction. I’m too far away from Arizona politics to guess whether those seeking to oust Sheriff Arpaio will get enough signatures by the end of this month to place the recall effort on the ballot. But it’s worth noting that in 2011, the state’s voters surprised nearly everyone by recalling the president of the state Senate, Russell Pearce. Formerly Sheriff Arpaio’s chief deputy, Senator Pearce was a principal author of S.B. 1070. He ran in a Republican primary last summer in an effort to get his seat back, and lost decisively.
Just as Congress isn’t finished with immigration, neither, certainly, is the Supreme Court. The court’s decision last June to strike down major portions of S.B. 1070 by a vote of 5 to 3 left Justice Antonin Scalia in a white heat. In remarks from the bench aimed directly at President Barack Obama, Justice Scalia demanded: “Are the sovereign states at the mercy of the federal executive’s refusal to enforce the nation’s immigration laws?” He went on: “If securing its territory in this fashion is not within the power of Arizona, we should cease referring to it as a sovereign state.”
Last month, the court considered an appeal by Alabama from a federal appeals court ruling that struck down that state’s copycat version of an anti-immigrant law. The Alabama law, H.B. 56, made it a crime to transport or “harbor” undocumented immigrants. The Obama administration argued that the statute was pre-empted by federal law, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed. The Supreme Court turned down the state’s appeal, Alabama v. United States. The court’s order contained a single sentence: “Justice Scalia dissents.” His anger may not have cooled, but for once, it seems, Justice Scalia had lost his voice.