Conservative Latinos, NAACP Blast Arizona Immigration Law

In Arizona, many Hispanic voters have socially conservative values that put them squarely in the Republican camp. But the state's controversial new immigration law now has them at odds with their party. Host Michel Martin speaks with DeeDee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, an organization of Hispanic Republicans in Arizona, who supports securing the U.S.-Mexico border and overhauling the country's immigration system. Also joining the program is Wilbert Nelson, president of the Arizona State Conference of the NAACP.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from the past and future leaders of one of the most successful fundraising organizations supporting women candidates - that's EMILY's List. We'll hear from them in just a few minutes.

But first, we go back to Arizona where we've been covering the debate over the tough, new immigration measure signed into law by the governor last week. We thought it was important to hear voices from Arizona. So we've called DeeDee Blase. She supports gun rights, small government and low taxes. That's one reason she says she founded the group Somos Republicans. That roughly translates into: We are Republicans. We thought her perspective on the new measure would be interesting.

But first, we're joined by Wilbert Nelson, president of the Arizona state conference of the NAACP. This civil rights organization has long spoken out against racial profiling, and members of this group are now stepping up to oppose Arizona's new law. He's with us from NPR member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Thanks, Wilbert Nelson, for joining us.

Mr. WILBER NELSON (President, NAACP Arizona State Conference): Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: So, tell me how the NAACP got interested in this. And I say that only to suggest that the NAACP has generally been identified with issues of particular concern to African-Americans and hasn't necessarily been considered a leading force in the immigration issue per se. So, tell me why your group is interested in this.

Mr. NELSON: Well, I think first of all that's one of the myths about the NAACP that it's only concerned about African-Americans' civil rights and human rights, when in fact if you look at the history of the NAACP, it was really the brainchild of a white woman. But, you know, this is not the opportunity to talk about history lesson. But basically...

MARTIN: All right, so tell us about this bill and what your concerns are.

Mr. NELSON: Okay. The concerns are is that it does racial profile. It does open the door for violation of civil rights. And what I mean by that is that the law enforcement, either they're using the traditional law enforcement, that you could stop me if I look suspicious. But what is looking suspicious? We've always been concerned about how that is. I mean, I could get stopped for a tail light. I could get stopped for driving a car that I shouldn't look like I should be driving.

An example of that is a few years ago, I was taking my wife to the airport and we had a Lincoln, and we're taking my wife and three other older ladies to the airport. And I saw a patrolman and I said to my wife, I said, watch him, he's going to stop me. And sure enough he did because it's like I shouldn't have been driving that kind of car.

But the real concern about immigration is that my primary concern is that the foundation that they used to engage people to say that persons who are illegal or come in across the border costing us they're doing more crime. They're costing us more in terms of health care and so forth. And to a certain extent, some of those elements are true. But people who are not U.S. citizens are not the only ones who are committing crime, and they're not the primary crime leaders in this state.

I also have some questions about the fact that they've been saying that there are over 400,000, almost 500,000 illegals in the state of Arizona. That roughly translates into about one-fifth of the population. And I'm not sure that that's true. But, again, those are some of the concerns with...

MARTIN: So you feel that this bill would open the door to racial profiling, just to clarify for folks who have not covered the issue. It requires law enforcement state and local law enforcement to question people upon reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally.

Mr. NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: And your concern is that this would open the door to stopping anybody just based on their appearance. We're joined now by DeeDee Blase. Let's bring her into the conversation. DeeDee, thank you for joining us.

Ms. DEEDEE BLASE (Founder, Somos Republicans): Good morning.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, let us ask you how and why you became committed to the Republican Party.

Ms. BLASE: I've always been a registered Republican because I believe in the principles of Abe Lincoln, Ronald Reagan. A lot of people don't know this, but the Reverend Martin Luther King was also a Republican who fought against the Dixiecrats and the Democrat Party. And I just want to restore the soul of the Republican Party.

And two individuals died, laid their lives on the, you know, laid their lives for the cause and I just know that the foundation is there and I want to continue to build that and bring it back to the real soul.

MARTIN: So as you know, of course, and so of course as you know, every member of the Republican legislature voted for this new immigration measure and it was signed by your governor who is also a Republican. Tell us your reaction to this new law.

Ms. BLASE: I was absolutely appalled. I had been writing the governor several letters and trying to get her to understand that this isn't the right answer. This isn't the right answer. When you make attempts in the name of, quote, "enforcing the laws," but you trample on the Constitution and our civil rights, you're making the problem worse.

MARTIN: And what was her response or did you get any response?

Ms. BLASE: No, no response.

MARTIN: Why do you think that there's such a difference of opinion about this? As you mentioned, you're a lifelong, or at least as long as you've been around, member - or able to vote, a member of the Republican Party, you are committed to what you believe the party's core principles are limited government, a respect to individual rights and so forth. And but somehow there's this disconnect with the rest of your party. What do you think what that's about?

Ms. BLASE: I believe the disconnect happened with our Maricopa County chair. He has been adamant in pursuing likeminded precinct committeemen. And that's where this started. This started at the precinct committeemen. It garnered the support at the PC level here in our county. And from there, that's how he was able to get the wind under his in his wings.

MARTIN: Are you concerned that people like you will be subject to unwanted and unwelcome law enforcement attention as a result of this law? Are you worried on a personal level that you're going to be harassed or mistreated as a result of it?

Ms. BLASE: Not necessarily, but now I'm going to be more cautious about my appearance. You know, sometimes I put on a ball cap and torn jeans on and an old T-shirt and just go to the grocery store. And so this is making all of us feel like, geez, what does an immigrant look like, you know. What are they looking for? We're brown, you can't change that.

And we know that Russell Pearce has been adamant about bringing back his Operation Wetback idea. He's on the record for wanting and trying to bring this back. And that's basically what this bill is.

MARTIN: Russell Pearce is a state representative or state senator, rather, forgive me, who authored this legislation, as I understand it. I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about with Operation Wetback, and I apologize for the use of that term. I don't - it's a racial slur, but...

Ms. BLASE: Yeah, I know. He utilized that term in 2006. And it was a controversial statement that he made here in Arizona, where he welcomed the idea of Operation Wetback, i.e. rounding up the illegals and deporting them. And that's basically what SB 1070 is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with DeeDee Blase. She's the founder of the group Somos Republicans. It's a group for Latino Republicans in Arizona. And I'm also speaking with Wilbert Nelson, president of the Arizona state conference of the NAACP.

And we're talking about that state's tough, new immigration law. It makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally. It also authorizes state and local law enforcement to question individuals about their immigration status based on a reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally.

Wilbert Nelson, what about, you know, the NAACP is a membership organization. What are your members saying about this new law? Do they share your concern about it?

Mr. NELSON: Not necessarily. I mean, I have to be honest. In terms of the African-American community, there has to be some education because many African-Americans and including some of the local branch leaders do not see immigration as an issue for us. However, in terms of just trying to educate the it is relative in relation to economics, is related to the educational pieces and all that.

And when I say education, I'm thinking about, for example, in our educational system, not just in Arizona, but across this country, we're trying to teach our students, or raise our students to be global participants. And how can you be a global participant if you don't understand the various cultures of the country that the country that you may ultimately be working in, because our world is much smaller because of technology.

MARTIN: Well, what do you, I'm sorry, what are you saying? Are you saying that the members don't see this issue as a priority for them? Or do they agree with the bill? Do they think that it is a reasonable use of state authority?

Mr. NELSON: No, they don't agree with the bill, they just don't see immigration as their issue.

MARTIN: I see.

Mr. NELSON: They see the element of racial profiling a violation of civil rights. And the reality of it is in the black community we are constantly still dealing with racial profiling. So that's, you know, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are immune or don't care about it. It's just that they don't see immigration as their issue.

MARTIN: DeeDee, what's been the atmosphere like in the state in a couple of days since this measure was passed? And I'm just asking, really, among your peer group and the people that you work with every day. Do people feel, what, abandoned by their neighbors, in a way? Are they surprised by the level of support that this bill has?

Because clearly it does have support in the state or it would not have passed. It passed both houses of the legislature by comfortable margins. The governor seems to have taken some time to think about it because she took a couple of days to sign it, but she did and she says she strongly supports it.

Ms. BLASE: Yeah, no. I work with conservatives, evangelicals across the state. The feeling before she signed it was, you know, sort of they were upset with the president. He lied to our people. He said he would pass immigration reform within the 90-days of his presidency. Then he pushed it back to a year.

Okay, so then December 31st came. And then we were all upset with him not coming through and Schumer and at least Graham, the Republican in the northeast, you know, expressed his support. You know, and so this whole it was building it was building. We're upset with Obama. And then now that Pearce signed it and Jan Brewer, now they've diverted their anger towards the state representatives and our governor.

MARTIN: I see. I just want to clarify, I don't recall the president saying that he was going to pass immigration reform in 90 days. I just can't verify whether that's accurate or not.

But, finally, and we're just down to our last 20 seconds. Obviously this is an ongoing conversation, and I hope that both of you will be available to talk to us in the days ahead. We're particularly interested in what steps will be taken now. So we hope we'll speak again.

DeeDee Blase is founder of Somos Republicans. She joined us on the phone from Arizona. Wilbert Nelson is the president of the Arizona state conference of the NAACP. He joined us from NPR member station KJZZ in Tempe. And I thank you both for being with us.

Ms. BLASE: Thank you.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you.

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