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In Arkansas, anti-immigrant sentiment fizzles

The big fizzle

The Arkansas Times
Published 7/8/2009

It was the first week of the 2009 General Assembly, and the anti-illegal-immigration lobby — or the anti-immigrants-in-general lobby, depending on your perspective — had kicked off the session with a bang.

On the session's fourth day, Secure Arkansas, the most notable nativist group in the state, held a well-attended rally in the Capitol rotunda. Construction workers gathered to tell the press that immigrant wages were driving them out of jobs, and Jeannie Burlsworth, Secure Arkansas's leader, declaimed that Arkansans are sick of immigrants who tax their resources.

Secure Arkansas was unable to advance its goals during a 2008 ballot-initiative push, but that setback came more from its own procedural shortcomings than a lack of anti-immigrant feeling in the state. After the group failed several times to submit proper ballot language, the attorney general's office finally approved a proposed initiative that would have restricted state spending on services to immigrants. Though its drafting problems meant less time to collect signatures, Secure Arkansas gathered enough — about 6,000 shy of the 61,794 needed to make the ballot, Burlsworth said — to suggest its agenda is not a passing fad.

In the 2009 legislative session, that agenda was backed by an actual lawmaker, Rep. Bill Sample of Hot Springs, who had professional bill writers at his service to ensure the legal language would pass muster. Sample's handiwork, HB 1093, was a bill of massive ambition, an Oklahoma-style clampdown not just on undocumented immigrants but on people who provided any assistance to them, even unwittingly. It would have made it a felony to transport or attempt to transport an illegal alien; it would have made it a felony to shelter or harbor an illegal alien. It would have put strict requirements on contractors to check the immigration status of their labor forces. It would have required status checks for anyone charged with a DWI or a felony. It would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving most forms of public assistance.

There the debate began. To supporters, the legislation would rightfully prevent taxpayer money from going toward unauthorized foreigners. To opponents, it would turn the state a paler shade of white by discriminating against all immigrants, legal and illegal.

Sample filed HB 1093 on the second day of the session. The bill seemed to foreshadow a serious struggle. Secure Arkansas declared HB 1093 its number one legislative priority at its rally. Pro-immigrant groups stayed vigilant for weeks on end and sat through committee meetings where the bill might come up. Sample kept promising to call for a vote.

But a funny thing happened: nothing. Despite all the early fuss, HB 1093 went absolutely nowhere. Indeed, with the notable exception of the defeat of Sen. Joyce Elliott's bill to allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition — a measure laid low by the opposition of Gov. Mike Beebe — the Secure Arkansas immigration agenda proved dead on arrival. The only thing the anti-immigration crowd could push through was a Sample-sponsored restriction on the validity period of drivers licenses carried by immigrants, which itself was an extension of existing law. Even a bill that would have merely permitted the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board to punish contractors who use undocumented foreign labor flopped.

So a roaring start to 2009 turned into a whimper for those who would see Arkansas take a hard line on immigration. Two big questions linger: What caused the anti-immigration agenda to fizzle this session? And what lies ahead?

 

One of the most common explanations for the failure of HB 1093 is timing: the souring economy focused legislative attention on the state's finances. Though this logic is not airtight — lawmakers had plenty of time in 2009, after all, to argue about whether you should be able to bring a gun to church and many other trivial, if sometimes emotional, issues — it does hint at one of the keys to understanding HB 1093's demise. Lawmakers may not have wanted to waste time chasing immigrants, but they did care about immigration as an economic concern. And the prevailing belief was that immigrants are so intertwined with the economy that it may be impossible to punish the former without harming the latter.

Though HB 1093 was not a surprise, Sample's sponsorship was. Many expected that immigration legislation would fall to Rep. Jon Woods, a Springdale lawmaker who has fought for restrictive immigration measures in the past. But Woods stayed out of the fray this time. He said he was too occupied with his constituents' other worries to spend time on the issue.

“Two years ago, immigration would be the number one or number two priority,” Woods said. “Now it's lower top ten.”

HB 1093's main supporters had a different take. They connected illegal immigration to unemployment and the economic crisis, arguing that the cheap illegal immigrant undermines the American laborer, who will work any job if he's paid enough. Sample, who said he carried the bill at the behest of his constituents and not a particular group, offered a version of this argument in explaining his sponsorship.

“My business is related to the construction industry, and I have many close friends that have had to lay off their workers because they can't compete with contractors that hire illegal immigrants,” Sample wrote in response to written questions. “The contractors that do this use the excuse that they are only hiring sub-contractors, but really what they are doing is being able to cut their overhead by not paying workmen comp, Medicare, Social Security, state and federal unemployment.”

Contracting is a particular sore spot in the immigration debate because of the number of Hispanic immigrants who work in construction. (Nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, construction employs 21 percent of illegal immigrants, second only to the service industry.) Yet the general business lobby gauged how Sample's bill affected the broader fiscal picture and didn't like what it saw. Opposition included the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau and the Poultry Federation — groups not often ignored at the Capitol.

To gauge what HB 1093's economic impact might have been, business leaders looked to Oklahoma, which passed one of the strictest immigration laws in the country in 2007. (Sample's bill essentially copied the language of the Oklahoma law.) Although there are no firm numbers on how the law has actually affected Oklahoma, projections from the Oklahoma Bankers Association said it could drain $1.8 billion from the state economy annually.

“[The 2007 law] has just had a debilitating effect on [Oklahoma's] economy, because it's shut down — literally has shut down — some businesses, and has crippled some industries over there,” said Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

The process of passing the Oklahoma law also provided a cautionary tale for the Arkansas Chamber, which believes its counterpart in Oklahoma didn't realize quickly enough how negative the legislation would be for business.

“We learned a lesson from [the Oklahoma Chamber],” said Kenneth Hall, executive vice president of the Arkansas Chamber and a frequent lobbying presence at the Capitol. “In summer meetings we heard about what happened, and that kind of put flags up for us to be watching for that.”

A second group that kept active guard on behalf of immigrants was the Friendship Coalition, an organization that counts business interests among its membership. (Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt is a member.) Friendship Coalition head Rev. Steve Copley, a Methodist minister and social-issue activist, also believes that economic concerns played a fundamental role in killing immigration legislation this time around.

“I'm not sure, except for a small handful of folks, there was really much interest in drawing that kind of attention to the state of Arkansas,” Copley said. “Then, as the economic crisis hit last fall, folks were saying, you know, we've just got enormous other issues that we're going to have to deal with. I think it's fair to say the business community was really concerned about it. And you can base that on the Winthrop Rockefeller study that came out.”

Copley referred to an often-cited 2007 report published by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The study found immigrants have a positive economic impact on Arkansas as a whole and have produced more for the state budget in taxes than they cost in expenses.

The report did not convince Burlsworth, the head of Secure Arkansas. Asked about the study's findings, Burlsworth simply said, “That's just not true.”

But why hasn't any other study been published contradicting the Rockefeller paper?

“If you'll take a look at the facts, is it a fact that California is absolutely loaded in illegal aliens, and that their emergency rooms and hospitals, there's been a ton of them closed down?” Burlsworth argued. “You just have to look at the facts and then decide whether you want to go by that or not, because I don't believe everything I read. I take a look at, you know, the facts to see what is actually going on and what we really need to be concerned about.”

Burlsworth's comments about California suggested concern about a broader issue: the recent influx of immigrants to Arkansas. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Arkansas had a 61.1 percent increase in its foreign-born population between 2000 and 2007, second only behind South Carolina for the fastest rate in the nation. The majority of the state's immigrants — 67 percent in 2005, according to the Rockefeller study — are from Latin America.

These developments have triggered reactions based on race and ethnicity as well as economy and law. For some, the influx has set off fears that a cultural riptide will wash away traditional values and ways of living. These attitudes are rarely expressed in a government forum, though they do emerge from time to time. Sen. Denny Altes was widely chastised for a racially tinged immigration e-mail he sent in 2007, and a failed 2009 bill sponsored by Rep. Pam Adcock of Little Rock — titled “To require publications produced or distributed by state government to be provided in all languages, including Braille and sign language, if the publication is provided in Spanish” — was the reductio ad absurdum of such thinking. One of the great questions of the immigration debate is how much the backlash against immigrants — both legal and illegal — is a backlash against brown people.

For her part, Burlsworth denies that Secure Arkansas has discriminatory motives. “Oh, for heaven's sake,” she said. “That old adage doesn't apply, on the racist part. That's just not true. What we're concerned about is illegal aliens taking jobs from American citizens, getting welfare programs, education.”

Ultimately, the question of prejudice was moot when it came to HB 1093. The bill did not die because lawmakers decided to take a moral stand against a harsh proposal. It died because it was widely considered bad policy. According to Rep. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana, who chaired the committee where the bill languished, there was never a comprehensive report on its fiscal impact — an automatic death sentence for such a sweeping piece of legislation. What's more, business didn't like it, and business has a way of trumping small activist groups at the Capitol, whether the issue is immigration or energy efficiency.

“We did make sure that [Sample] heard concerns about [HB 1093's] impact on businesses that are operating with what we believe to be legal immigrants,” said Hall. “There's a lot of jobs in Arkansas and across the country that only immigrants are willing to do. One of the fears we've had is that you could lose that workforce. When people like Sample — well-meaning — come up with legislation to try to combat illegal immigration, it has dangerous potential for impact on legal immigration. We did chat with Bill kind of privately about those fears. He understood them, and that's why he never moved the bill. He's a businessman, and he didn't want to do anything to hurt business.”

 

As she made the rounds of the Capitol, Secure Arkansas's leader, like many other lobbyists, wore an identification badge: Jeannie Burlsworth Secure Arkansas Chairman. It was an odd title for a couple of reasons. For one, Burlsworth is obviously a woman; using the term “chairman” seemed a rebuke to liberal attitudes and political correctness. Even more interesting was that Secure Arkansas had a chairwoman, man, or person at all. At the heart of Secure Arkansas lies a fundamental incongruity — it makes itself heard loud and clear, but it appears to have just one active member in day-to-day operations: Jeannie Burlsworth. While Burlsworth in fact has the assistance of a secretary, treasurer and state coordinator, on the ground at the statehouse Secure Arkansas is an infantry of one — albeit one backed by prolific e-mail artillery.  

Secure Arkansas is still in its infancy. It began just over a year ago out of conversations Burlsworth had with friends and family. A Mountain Home native, she started the group with few political credentials — only a couple of anti-stem-cell-research and anti-abortion rallies in Missouri — and no experience with immigrants. Yet she has fast become the most noteworthy voice for the anti-immigration cause in the state. And although it is best-known for its immigration stance, Secure Arkansas has more wide-ranging goals.

“I see needs come up all the time, and Secure Arkansas took a little more of a stand this last session than just on immigration. We took a stand on states' rights,” Burlsworth said, referring to a failed resolution telling the federal government to cease and desist from unfunded mandates.

Such actions suggest that Burlsworth represents a strain of right-wing thought that has become particularly noticeable since Barack Obama became a serious candidate for the presidency. With anti-tax “tea parties” and frequent invocation of the Constitution, its adherents seek a return to a more locally controlled, and arguably apocryphal, America. Immigration is just one of the issues that move them.

Asked how immigration affects the integrity of the Constitution, Burlsworth said, “It just looks like socialism and our Constitution does not fit together to me. To me, I see when you have open borders, I mean, there goes the sovereignty. If you look at that with an open border and no immigration policy enforced, that's not a political issue to me, that's a Constitutional issue. And it threatens the sovereignty of the United States.”

Extreme this may be, but Burlsworth has shown she will not be ignored, no matter how long the odds of success. She has been able make her group reviled among the pro-immigrant camp despite not having a dedicated Secure Arkansas office. She became overwhelmed with e-mail messages during the session, she said, and stopped checking Secure Arkansas's inbox.

“It was mainly me down there most of the time,” Burlsworth said of the 2009 session. “I thought it would be better just to try to talk to [lawmakers]. We were very, very careful not to over e-mail. We didn't want to send too many because some people get e-mail happy.”

Yet Secure Arkansas has also developed a network of supporters who aren't shy about pressing the send button. If Burlsworth's goal was to exercise e-mail restraint, she failed in the eyes of Harrelson, who nominated Secure Arkansas for best e-mail campaign on his legislative blog.

“At the very least, she has a list of members who are willing to take direction from her,” Harrelson wrote to the Times. “She sent out an e-mail telling her members I was working behind the scenes against HB 1093, and I got over 500 e-mails within a few hours calling me everything in the book.”

 

Though there was no big battle over immigration this session, it is a virtual certainty that the issue will be back on the table next year, if not before. Regardless of potential congressional action — which President Obama has said is a priority in 2009 — Burlsworth said she will have another ballot initiative for 2010. (She also said she had planned for an initiative push even if HB 1093 went through.)

Among Secure Arkansas's most vocal opponents will be the Friendship Coalition, which was formed after harsh-toned committee hearings on immigration in the summer of 2007.

Copley said the group succeeded this legislative session in accomplishing its mission, which is to react defensively to measures that could hurt immigrants. (The organization took no position on Elliott's failed tuition bill.) Stopping a ballot initiative, however, is fundamentally different than lobbying the legislature. The Arkansas electorate can be a punitive and unpredictable bunch, as proven by voters' unexpected passage of a 2008 initiative to prevent cohabiting couples from adoption.

The initiative's success will depend on two things: whether Secure Arkansas quickly turns in effective ballot language, and whether it exceeds what appear to be slim financial means. According to financial disclosure reports, its PAC has only raised about $1,000 this year. It garnered around $3,400 in contributions to last year's initiative campaign.

Whatever the strength of its bankroll, Secure Arkansas does not intend to quit without a fight.

“You wait ”˜til you have children,” Burlsworth told me. “Unless you're just dyed-in-the-wool socialist, you're going to want to protect what our founding fathers laid down for us. It's a special thing. I want to do what I can do right now to preserve for my grandchildren the heritage that they deserve.”

Others might counter that the United States has a heritage of tolerance, compassion and assimilation, albeit an imperfect one. How that cultural, historical and moral question is framed may play a decisive role in determining whether the people of Arkansas vote to become the next Oklahoma.

“If we can get the explanation out to folks about what's really there, I don't think it'll pass,” Copley said of the potential Secure Arkansas initiative. “Therein lies the challenge.”

And what if the Friendship Coalition wins this battle? There's always the 2011 session. Though Woods, the state representative, said he does not plan to attach his name to an immigration bill in 2011, he said there are several freshman lawmakers who have expressed interest in carrying legislation. Sample might even return for round two.

“I think that this issue is not going away, need I say more than ”˜Swine-flu,' ” Sample wrote in an e-mail. “We have no proof of immunization for anything when we are dealing with illegal immigrants. Even though I am term-limited for the House of Representatives, I can return as a member of the Senate, if the people in District 19 choose to elect me.”

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