Arizona Immigration Fallout Could Shape Mid-Term Elections

A federal judge last week blocked the controversial elements of Arizona's new anti-illegal immigration law. Host Michel Martin talks to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who says the judge's action will likely be a boon for some conservatives, who could argue the injunction is an example of federal government interference in legislation on a state level. Also joining the conversation is California-based syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, who is assessing the situation in Arizona. Navarrette shares political observations from the ground on what the tense immigration debate in Arizona could mean for the upcoming mid-term elections.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, the Americans with Disabilities Act, how that law is working or not working in communities of color.

But first, to the epicenter of the national immigration debate: Arizona. With some aspects of the state's controversial anti-illegal-immigration law now in place, the country's waiting to see what happens next. U.S. district court judge Susan Bolton temporarily blocked some of the law's more controversial aspects last week, including one that critics have charged could lead to racial profiling by police.

That move may have eased apprehension of some immigrants in Arizona, but it's added fuel to the political debate. And with the November midterm elections three months from today, immigration is clearly one of the top issues for voters this campaign season.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post. He's been writing about this. Also with us, Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com and he's in Phoenix now. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to be here, Michel.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist, The Washington Post Writers Group): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Ruben, I'm going to start with you because you've been in Phoenix the last couple of days reporting on what's been happening since SB 1070 became law last week. What have you been seeing and hearing?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, you know, like a lot of reports have said, you know, there are whole parts of the town - Phoenix is this vast metropolis, four million people in the overall metroplex of Phoenix. Lots of Latinos typically had settled in south Phoenix and west Phoenix. Those areas are particularly hard-hit. But west Phoenix in particular had a lot of immigrants there.

I drove through there yesterday with an old friend of mine who and I used to be a reporter together here, and we were commenting on just how different things were. Restaurants were closed down, businesses were closed down, you know, literally outside one there was homeless people sitting outside a store that had been closed down, shut down. We're talking about supermarket-size stores that are no longer there and operational.

And people have left. And it's either because the people who ran the store, ran the restaurant were here without documents or their clientele was. And so it's hurt everybody. And I remember one of the things - we're walking through the park - and it's always been my contention, Michel, as you know, that so much of this is not economic. The resistance comes from changing cultural norms and the fact that demographics are changing.

And I remarked to my friend, I said this is a heck of a drastic response just because people didn't want to push 1 for English. This is like nuking a whole city or a whole state.

MARTIN: But how do you know that this is in response to the law or the perceived anti-immigrant - a culture of hostility as opposed to the recession?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Because it's been going on for 20 years in good times -economic good times and bad times. During the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was there, we had a healthy economy. I was covering immigration in this city and that resistance was there. Because when Tom Tancredo ran for president, he made a big issue out of you have press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish.

And because people have long been freaked-out. And African-Americans, I'll be direct about this, if you go to South Central Los Angeles, and I used to work in Los Angeles, hosted a radio show there, as you know, African-Americans were one of the first groups of people to make those kinds of comments. To say, hey, my neighborhood is changing. You know, they closed down this business and replaced it with a taco shack and I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. So this has always been part of the discussion.

MARTIN: Well, let me just say that there's conflicting data about whether or not this law has really had an impact on Arizona or not, or on the Phoenix area, not particularly in the area of tourism. We have information from the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association that says that at least 40 groups have canceled their trips to Arizona, a convention of five and seven thousand persons each have canceled in the last month.

And then the tourism industry, as you know, that significant numbers of workers are Hispanic and minority group workers, but there are others who say that it hasn't had a significant impact overall. That the, let's see, total occupancy for hotels is down 2 percent and new business added is down 15 percent compared to the same time last year. But other people are arguing is it the law or is it the recession overall? So we can talk more about this.

But Eugene Robinson, let's bring you into the conversation. You recently wrote a column, you wrote a column last week titled "In the Short Term, Immigration Ruling is a Gift for the GOP." And you say Christmas came early for the demagogues. The court decision putting a hold on the worst provisions of Arizona's new anti-Latino immigration law is a gift-wrapped present to those who delight in turning truth, justice and the American way into political liabilities. Why do you say that?

Mr. ROBINSON: I say that, Michel, because there are polls, national polls that show a majority of Americans support the Arizona law. Now, there are also polls that show that a majority of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already here.

But this, this specific issue of people crossing the borders is an easy issue for those who choose to do so to demagogue, I think, and I expect that's exactly what's going to happen. In fact, it's already happening. And you're seeing Arizona Senator Jon Kyl already essentially saying let's repeal the 14th Amendment that provides that anyone born in the United States has citizenship.

And the target is undocumented, you know, people who might be here and have a child and thus the child becomes an American citizen. He wants to get rid of that. And it's that sort of thing. I don't think that's a serious proposal to get rid of the 14th Amendment, but I think it's a way of kind of inflaming or further inflaming the conservative base.

MARTIN: Well, how do you know that this is - why do you describe this as demagoguery as opposed to perhaps reflecting accurately the will of their constituents? I mean let us set aside this proposal to - just for the minute -let's just set aside this proposal to end the U.S. practice, which is in constitutional law, it's in the Constitution, of granting citizenship to most children born in this country. And they say most because already the children of diplomats, certain children of diplomats are not included. It's a very small group of people who are not covered by this.

But let's just set that aside. Why do you say this is demagoguery as opposed to reflecting accurately the sentiment of the country?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, because the sentiment of the country is more nuanced than that. It is, yes, control the borders, but also, yes, but find a way to deal with the immigration issue without some sort of vast pogrom that would hunt down and expel 11 or 12 million people who are here without papers. That is not the clear will of the American people.

And when you explain it in detail and nuance, you get a different position from when you just say, it's our country. We've got to control the borders. We've got to keep these people from coming in. Exaggerating, as many people have, for example, crime committed by illegal immigrants or the drain or the alleged drain on services that is created by illegal immigrants. All this is a kind of jingoistic and I think fundamentally xenophobic maneuver.

And I agree with Ruben that a lot of this is playing on a kind of nervousness, a kind of anxiety about the changing demographics of this country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with columnists Eugene Robinson and Ruben Navarrette. We're talking about new developments in Arizona's controversial immigration law known as SB 1070. It went into effect last week.

And Eugene, and Ruben, I want to hear from you on this question also. Eugene, you say in the short term, you say the political fallout is clear. In the short run, at least, Republicans win and Democrats lose. But you say longer term, the impact of the immigration issue on the major parties' prospects is the other way around. Why do you say that?

Mr. ROBINSON: And I believe that. Surveys also show that Latinos care deeply about this issue. And to the extent that the Republican Party manages to become identified as not just the anti-illegal-immigration party, but the anti-Latino party, or the party that is hostile to Latinos. That is very, very bad for the Republican Party. It's the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country.

And if this - and, again, I'm going to use the word demagoguery - but if it succeeds in driving Latinos into the arms of the Democratic Party for a generation or more, it's hard to see how the Republican Party is going to win national elections, statewide elections.

MARTIN: Well, just to the point - you mentioned the Arizona, Jon Kyl - you mentioned Arizona Senator Jon Kyl's discussion around withholding citizenship from persons whose parents are not in the country with proper authorization. He talked about this just this weekend on Sunday's Face the Nation. And I'll just play a short clip so people know what we're talking about. Here it is.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): The question is if both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior? And what I suggested to my colleague Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, I suggested that we pursue that. And I what I suggested to him was that we should hold some hearings and hear first from the constitutional experts to at least tell us what the state of the law on that proposition is.

MARTIN: So, Ruben, I'll ask you the same question, do you agree with Eugene's assessment in the short run that this is probably a net loss for Republicans, but in the long run you feel it's a net plus for the Democrats?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I absolutely do. First let me say this about Jon Kyl. I covered him 15 years ago when I worked at the Arizona Republic and, you know, obviously the fact that he would even entertain this question - he's a lawyer. Normally a smart lawyer, but I guess he was absent the day they taught law in law school. This is cut and dry. There are court cases that make this pretty clear, this is all political hay. It's all about getting points even when you lose the legal argument.

Gene's right about the long-term demographics, though. And Republicans - there are some smart Republicans out there who are worried about this: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and others see the writing on the wall and they've tried to -Matthew Dowd and others have said this is a really bad play.

Long-term it's a fool's errand that you're engaged in because you're going to win some short-term elections. But as Gene said, for a generation or more, at the governor level, senator level, you know, presidential level for sure, you're just not going to win any elections.

And the bad news about that is the Democrats are not going to have to work hard. If I think Democrats already take Latinos for granted, it's going to get only worse from here because they're going to feel they don't have to do anything, because Latinos are simply going to go to the Democratic Party. So it's bad for both parties. It lets Democrats be lazy, ineffective and unresponsive, and lets Republicans sort of live in their cocoon, and they'll go the way of the Whig Party.

So it's a bad play. It's not smart. But, you know, these are people who are not worried about what the political end of it looks 20, 30 years from now. They just want to get some short-term juice from it right now.

MARTIN: It's curious, though, and we don't - we're unfortunately out of time -it's curious that one of the areas of agreement during the presidential campaign was between John McCain and Barack Obama on this very question. So it's interesting how the politics have changed in such a short time. So I thank you both.

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com. He's joining us from Phoenix, Arizona where he's been covering reaction to the law over the weekend. Also with us, Eugene Robinson. He's an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize winner. He joined us from his office. Gentlemen, thank you both.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

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