What can Florida learn from Arizona on immigration laws?

On Sept. 28, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis released a flurry of actions on immigration policy. He issued an executive order prohibiting the state’s agencies from facilitating illegal immigration, appointed a public safety czar and filed a lawsuit against President Biden’s administration, arguing that it is failing to uphold U.S. immigration law by releasing migrants into the country.

In 2010, Arizona took some similar steps in pursuing state-level immigration enforcement. What followed in Arizona stands as a cautionary tale for Florida’s efforts. Fundamentally, immigration policies that treat immigrants as a liability and not an asset do more harm than good.

Arizona’s main immigration control efforts came in the form of Senate Bill 1070, or SB1070. It was often called the “show me your papers” law because of the law’s direction for police officers to investigate the legal status of those that they stop when they were suspicious of the person’s legal status.

Our research shows that this requirement for Arizona’s police to spend time enforcing immigration laws ultimately made the state less safe — a result that should give Floridians pause as similar policies are reflected in Florida’s recent actions.

Our 2020 study of Arizona’s SB1070 found that violent crimes increased following the passage of the law. In short, SB1070 shifted the focus of law enforcement from violent crimes to immigration-related offenses. Given the overwhelming research showing that immigration is not associated with crime, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this turned out to be a bad deal for Arizona.

Florida should learn from Arizona’s experiment and make better policies going forward.

Gov. DeSantis is right that it costs money to manage the migrants entering the country. Immigrants are people who attend local schools and use public roads or other services, which all come with costs. A step towards better policy would be federal legislation or assistance defraying the state and local economic costs associated with immigration.

In many cases, we can expect immigrants to repay the assistance that they receive. And here Florida becomes a shining example. Research on immigration has often centered on Florida because it has been a destination for immigrants in the past. Those studies show that the state is better because of the immigrants that it takes in.

One of the best-known studies explores the impacts of Puerto Ricans moving to Orlando after Hurricane Maria. In 2017, 120,000 individuals came to Orlando. The researchers found that total employment rose in the city. That means there’s no evidence that immigrants took the jobs of Floridians already living here. In fact, quite the opposite as more total jobs were created.

How can immigration increase overall employment? Because immigrants aren’t just workers. They are people who shop at local stores, get their car fixed at the mechanic, and start their own businesses providing new and different options for others. A state with cities as vibrant as Miami and Orlando is no stranger to the value of immigration.

Fundamentally, what state leaders should take from research on immigration is that people bring prosperity. State leaders have more to gain from taking in refugees and immigrants of all kinds than they have to lose. We can view them as just stomachs that must be filled, or as contributors to making the state and country stronger. Immigrants are assets, not liabilities.

Of course, we should have robust enforcement that targets serious offenders and dangerous individuals. But by and large, those aren’t immigrants. When they are, they should be punished just as all public safety threats are. Best practices suggested by law enforcement officials and supported by our research would focus immigration enforcement on real public safety threats. That approach will ultimately be more effective at promoting safety and saving taxpayers money.

All state leaders must ask serious questions about how to meet the challenge of immigration. Policymakers have options that meet the needs of immigrants and their constituents — they don’t have to choose one over the other. Many of the policies are federal, but state and local policy matters too. On that front, Florida should take note of Arizona’s experience and pursue more welcoming immigration policies.

Josh Smith is a research manager for the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.