“I’m not going back!”

25 09 2010

“They all should be sent back. The whole family,” the rider across the aisle was mumbling on the Route 44 bus heading south on Tatum Boulevard one morning. The regulars were discussing Arizona’s SB1070 and the reaction to the law from around the world. This story is not taking a position—this type of blog is not supposed to dwell on political issues—on SB1070, but the concept of unintended consequences.

The unnamed rider—I don’t think we know any of each other’s names—was talking about the need for expansion to require an entire family—children, parents, grandparents—to be deported to Mexico if any member of the family was in this country illegally. I looked across the aisle and said, “I’m not going back.”

“What?” he blurted.

“I’m not going back. I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian; I’ve never been there. I’m not going back.”

“This wouldn’t apply to you.”

“Why not? You said if any member of the family, grandparents included, came into the country illegally, the whole family should go back.”

“But you were born here, right?”

“Yes, I was, but my grandmother was an illegal immigrant. Under this law you’re proposing, I’d be expatriated to the Ukraine. Are you sure your grandparents came here legally?” I asked. He was speechless at the concept—unintended consequences.

Three decades serving local governments, I was on the front line of unintended consequences as an urban planner. If one were to read zoning codes across the country—not brand new ones, but an code in effect for more than three or four years—the “midnight call law” is easy to discern. The “midnight call law” is a code amendment added because a member of the Council or the County Board received a complaint from a constituent via a late night phone call. These are easy to see: numbers of animals, noise limits, prohibitions on “non-pets” in urban settings.

There are many others as well—junk, “blighted” yards, and roommates. The common denominator of all these zoning regulations is that the regulations are simple to enact, difficult to enforce, and generate significant ill will between planners and neighborhoods. The other problem is that zoning codes are supposed to be uniformly enforced—it doesn’t matter whether the accused violator is a buddy of an elected official or not. Planners have many examples, but I have two favorites: the “Pot Belly Pig fiasco” and the “They’re not weeds, they’re wildflowers” lawn…in the next two blogs.