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State rights and wrongs on immigration- know-nothing laws and shrivelling economies

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John Kavanagh
On June 24, 1875, the steamship Ethiopia sailed into New York harbor, after a long journey from Glasgow, Scotland.  Little is known about the ship’s passengers, other than the fact that many were looking to start new lives in New York or other states, or perhaps even Canada. 

Suffice to say, the odds that there were Irish passengers on board the Ethiopia are very high.

After all, the Irish had been coming in great numbers to thriving ports for many reasons, one of them being that cities from New York to Boston to New Orleans had established systems for accepting (and sometimes rejecting) immigrants. 

And while they had to deal with problems created by immigration – from crime to rabid nativist movements – they also reaped the benefits and became thriving, first-class cities.

The ship masters of the Ethiopia well knew that once they docked in New York, they were required, by local laws, to report the name, birthplace, last residence and occupation of every emigrant on board the ship.  They also had to pay a fee for each emigrant, or issue a bond, which could hold the ship masters financially responsible for the emigrants down the road.

The ship masters were fed up with this system.  So they took the mayor of New York City to court.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that the hodge-podge of local statutes which made up American immigration law were unconstitutional. 

Following the decision in Henderson vs. the Mayor of the City of New York, states would no longer oversee immigration law.  Instead, the federal government was now in charge.

Now, we may be turning back the clock.  Hostility towards the federal government is fierce.  Immigration may be another issue that falls under a renewed “states' rights” movement.
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To those states – and anti-immigrant activists – hoping to relieve the federal government of its duties related to immigration, I would say this -- be careful what you wish for.

This week, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments about Arizona’s infamous immigration laws, which, among other things, empower local police officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status and detain those suspected of being undocumented.

The Obama administration has criticized the laws.  A supporter of the Arizona laws is an Irish American, a Queens-born, former Port Authority cop turned Arizona lawmaker named John Kavanagh.

Let’s forget, for a moment, whether or not Irish Americans in general should be more supportive of a sane, tolerant immigration policy, given their own history in this country.  When asked where his own people came from, Kavanagh – and many like him – proudly say two things: “from Ireland” and “legally.”

Of course, it is ludicrous to believe undocumented immigrants are some kind of 20th century invention.  Nevertheless, they are at the heart of the current battle being waged by Kavanagh and his crowd. 

The term “states’ rights” in the U.S. rightly makes people nervous.  To some, it means local hotheads and bigots can pass nasty laws and the federal government can do nothing about it. 
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However, there is a theory going around now that even pro-immigrant activists should hope these states get exactly what they want.

“Laws like Arizona’s are such bad policy that, left to their own devices, they will die a natural death — and their supporters will suffer the political consequences,” Peter J. Spiro wrote in The New York Times this week, arguing that anti-immigrant laws choke a state’s economy.

It’s no mistake that today, as well as when the steamship Ethiopia sailed into New York, states that had sane immigration policies also had vibrant economies.  Those that target immigrants, um, don’t.

So, let the Kavanaghs of Arizona have their know-nothing laws and watch their economies shrivel.

There’s only one problem with this. How many immigrants -- or U.S. citizens for that matter -- will get trapped in an immigration nightmare in the meantime?

Immigration, so intimately tied to the economy, may be the hot issue of this looming election.  The Supreme Court may well cool things off – or throw gasoline on the fire.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at facebook.com/tomdeignan or tomdeignan@earthlink.net)

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