Momentum built up over years led to new immigration law

Arizona’s new immigration law may have stunned the nation, but for Arizona it’s just the latest step in a decade-long battle over illegal immigration.

Over the past 10 years, the public has expressed growing frustration with a lack of action from the federal government, concern over reports of violence committed by illegal immigrants in Arizona, and support for efforts that attempt to solve the problem.

Voters have strongly endorsed state immigration laws such as requiring ID at the polls and denying public benefits to people who can’t prove they are in the U.S. legally. And they increasingly have backed conservative state political candidates, many of whom vowed to take a tough stance on illegal immigration. Those politicians, led by Mesa Sen. Russell Pearce, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, have responded by passing and enforcing more laws targeting illegal immigrants.

This year, those factors – along with a new Republican governor, the murder of a rancher in southern Arizona and the promise of heavy conservative competition in upcoming elections – combined to open the door for the next step in immigration enforcement: Senate Bill 1070.

The new law, sponsored by Pearce and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, goes into effect July 29. It makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally and requires law enforcement to question an individual’s legal status if an officer has reasonable suspicion the person may be in the country illegally.

Kris Kobach, the immigration attorney for the Immigration Reform Law Institute who helped Pearce craft the law and worked with him on previous efforts, said SB 1070 is just the latest piece in a larger effort.

“This law represents turning it up one more click,” Kobach said. “Increase the level a notch at a time, and people will deport themselves.”

Elected officials

Elected officials have increasingly supported immigration enforcement over the past decade.  In 2000, East Valley voters elected Russell Pearce to the state House of Representatives.  He was already well-versed in immigration issues.  As director of the Motor Vehicle Division, Pearce said, he helped write a 1996 law that required proof of citizenship to get an Arizona driver’s license.

During his first year as a lawmaker, Pearce proposed two illegal-immigration-enforcement bills. Both failed.  Over the next few years, Pearce’s political clout grew, as did his legislative effort to combat illegal immigration. He continued to revise and re-introduce key bills, working with local and national groups such as Kobach’s to hone his proposals.

At the same time, voters began to back candidates tough on illegal immigration.  In 2004, they elected Thomas, who ran on an anti-illegal-immigration platform. Once in office, he partnered with Arpaio to begin a targeted enforcement effort.  That same year, a slate of conservative candidates ousted moderate Republicans in legislative primary elections, boosting support for tougher immigration measures.

The number of immigration measures proposed by the Legislature began to escalate in 2006 and 2007, and more of them made it through the GOP-dominated Legislature and onto the governor’s desk.  Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano killed most of them, including a 2006 effort that looked similar to SB 1070. But a few earned her signature. Most notably, Napolitano in 2007 signed a bill that penalized employers who hire illegal workers.

The employer-sanctions bill wasn’t a Republican-only idea. Half of the Democratic delegation voted for it, arguing the state needed to stop persecuting illegal immigrants and instead go after the businesses that lured workers to Arizona.

Meanwhile, immigration moved further into the national spotlight.  In 2006, Arizona’s two U.S. senators backed President Bush’s immigration-reform effort but were met with angry opposition from critics who scorned the bill as providing amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.  By early summer 2007, the effort was dead.

In 2008, the nation shifted to the left, electing President Barack Obama and supporting Democratic candidates. But Arizona moved to the right, giving the GOP easy majorities in both the state House and the Senate. Voters also re-elected Arpaio and Thomas and sent Pearce to the Senate.

Brewer’s ascension to the Governor’s Office in January 2009, after Napolitano was named U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary, provided a Republican governor to complement the conservative Legislature.

Pearce pushed his legislative efforts into high gear.

He killed his bills when amendments were tacked on that he didn’t support, and he revived them as amendments to other bills. When Pearce’s efforts didn’t have the votes, they were rescheduled. He worked with the Governor’s Office and law enforcement to find compromises that helped ensure their passage, and he spoke passionately in legislative hearings and to national media to drum up public support.

SB 1070 passed through the Legislature with the support of all 52 Republicans except Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. All 32 Democrats in attendance voted against it. Brewer, facing a tough primary against conservative opponents who vocally supported the bill, signed it.

Voter mandates

As elected officials were sponsoring legislation, anti-illegal-immigration activists were turning to the ballot with increasing success.  In 2000, 63 percent of voters backed a measure that banned bilingual education in the schools.  The ballot box became more important as Napolitano’s vetoes stopped legislative efforts.  In 2004, voters made Arizona the first state in the nation to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Arizona joined 23 other states that required ID at the polls.

The Protect Arizona Now initiative also denied public benefits to anyone in the country illegally and required public employees to notify federal immigration authorities if they suspected anyone lacking legal status was seeking such benefits. It won with 56 percent of the vote.

In 2006, a trio of immigration-related ballot measures – denying in-state tuition to Arizona students who cannot prove their U.S. citizenship, denying bail to illegal immigrants and barring illegal immigrants from collecting punitive damages in lawsuits – passed with 70 percent-plus of the vote. A fourth proposition, establishing English as the state’s official language, also passed with 70 percent.

“Our hostility, our antipathy, toward immigrants is very clear,” said Kelly McDonald, an assistant professor of communications at Arizona State University who studies voter behavior.  Arizonans harbor real fears of losing jobs to immigrants, he said. But they also have a “chimeric image” – an irrational view that immigrants will take over the country. That fear, he said, is unfounded.


FBI Uniform Crime Reports and statistics provided by police agencies show that the crime rates in Arizona border towns have remained stagnant for the past decade. Violent crime statewide is down.

But reports of smuggling deaths, drophouses and crimes committed by suspected illegal immigrants get big play in the media, and Arizona politicians regularly comment about the rise in violence stemming from illegal immigration.

Immigration sweeps by Arpaio’s deputies made national news. Thomas’ decision to charge individuals being smuggled into the country as co-conspirators under the state’s human-smuggling law got headlines, as well.

McDonald said such policies get support because they appear to allay people’s fears.  “It’s not fact-based policy that matters,” he said. “It’s that visceral reaction that matters.”  And reports of police shootings or car crashes involving immigrants fan fears that immigrants are the enemy, he said.  Supporters of tougher immigration enforcement say the fears are well-founded.  “The drug trafficking and violence along the border ought to scare every American,” Pearce said during a committee hearing this spring.

Every time an Arizona officer is killed or injured by an illegal immigrant, Pearce adds it to a list he reads in public speeches every chance he gets.

“When is enough enough?” asks Pearce, a former Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputy.  For some, enough was the March 27 murder of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. Some believe it was committed by an illegal immigrant.  The murder occurred a day after Krentz’s brother Phil helped the Border Patrol arrest eight suspects and seize nearly 300 pounds of marijuana on the family ranch. Phil Krentz told authorities that before Robert died, he made radio contact and said something about an “illegal alien.” Footprints were discovered leading 20 miles to the Mexican border. No suspects have been identified.

Pearce and other lawmakers advocated for more enforcement efforts, and SB 1070 supporters began showing up at the state Capitol with signs and buttons in honor of Krentz. Two weeks after his death, the House passed the bill.

Political environment

The bill’s signing ignited a political furor from both sides.

Lawmakers in nearly a dozen other states are considering a similar effort, while city councils from across the country are advocating for boycotts of Arizona. Advocacy groups, celebrities and even the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ management have weighed in on the issue.

Yet it’s still unclear exactly what enforcement of the law will look like. And the law also must survive at least three lawsuits challenging its constitutionality and a referendum effort to overturn it at the polls.

The outcry over Arizona’s law has revived talks of national immigration-reform efforts, though the federal government has yet to take action.  And the battle likely isn’t over on the Arizona front.  Now that SB 1070 is law, it remains to be seen what legislators will propose next.  Some previous efforts that have not yet gotten through include denying birth certificates to babies born to illegal immigrants and requiring Arizona schools to collect and report data on students who are not able to prove legal U.S. residence.

As in years past, Arizona voters may again speak out at the polls. This fall, they decide whether Brewer and current lawmakers will keep their seats.

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