- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

In the run-up to voting in November, Arizonans sent their political leaders a message: Do something about illegal immigation, or we’ll do it ourselves. The result was Proposition 200, a ballot initiative to tighten the receipt of public benefits by illegals and to make public employees report illegals to federal authorities. The measure passed, and late last month the state began implementing it. Some immigration authorities are viewing the move as an antidote to lax enforcement in Washington, and now that it’s becoming a reality we’ll see whether they’re right. Immigration control is primarily a federal government responsibility. But if Congress and the Bush Administration won’t solve the problem, there’s no law saying the states can’t take steps to protect their own interests when illegal immigration weighs heavily upon them.

And in Arizona, weigh heavily it did. Outsiders who don’t follow the issue closely are likely to be surprised by the numbers for the state. As U.S. Border Patrol data show, in fiscal year 2004, for the first time, more than half of all illegals caught along the U.S.-Mexico border were caught in Arizona. More illegals were caught there than in California, New Mexico and Texas combined. As a share of the national total, Arizona’s burden is nearly four times what it was 10 years ago. The tightening of controls in California and Texas, flat funding increases for Arizona and unfavorable geography on the state’s borders are the primary reasons why it happened. As early as 2000, immigration agents were calling Phoenix’s airport the “gateway” to the rest of the United States for illegals. Too bad Washington wasn’t paying attention.

For years, Arizonans have known that their state — not California or Texas — is ground zero for illegal immigration. But the numbers for last year show the full extent of the problem, and go far in explaining why Arizonans acted as they did at the polls, despite the opposition of most of the state’s political and business establishment.

Editorializing on the subject last November, the Washington Post opined against state-by-state solutions like Arizona’s, saying illegal immigration cannot be dealt with sensibly on a piecemeal basis. If the Post writers mean to suggest that federal authorities are best suited to handle illegal immigration, surely they are correct: Washington is charged with protecting the nation’s borders, not the individual states. But what happens when Washington abdicates its responsibility? Surely Arizona’s experience shows that Washington can fail in its charge. And we don’t yet know what will be the effects of moves like Arizona’s to curb the worst abuses. That’s why other states — Colorado, prominently — have been following Proposition 200 so closely.

We hope Arizona succeeds in curbing the worst excesses of its illegal-immigration conundrum. The implementation of Proposition 200 will show whether the states have a fighting chance to make up for failures at the federal level.

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