Arizona Voters Face Immigration Initiatives

Voters in a state with porous borders will be asked if they want to make English the official state language... and if they would prefer to deny bail privileges and in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Nowhere else is illegal immigration such an election issue as Arizona. So many illegals cross there, two years ago Arizona voters decided illegal immigrants could no longer get state and local welfare benefits.

CHADWICK: Now new ballot initiatives aim to limit their access to schools and legal help.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: Here's the level of debate in Arizona over Proposition 100 on next week's ballot, which would deny bail to illegal immigrants arrested for serious felonies.

Mr. RUSSELL PEARCE (Republican, Arizona State Representative): These are facts (unintelligible). These are...

Mr. ALFREDO GUTIERREZ (Former Arizona State Senator): No. You make numbers up, Russell, and you've been called on it again and again and again.

ROBBINS: On the phone, State Representative Russell Pearce, who helped write the propositions, is former State Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, who opposes them.

Mr. PEARCE: You don't want to believe them because, Alfredo, you continue to deny their truth and...

Mr. GUTIERREZ: No, you just make them up, Russell.

ROBBINS: Randy Capps of the Urban Institute in Washington says illegal immigration is such a hot button in Arizona because the state is ground zero for illegal immigrants.

Mr. RANDY CAPPS (Urban Institute): Arizona is in an unusual position in that it's paying a heavier price than almost any other state for undocumented immigration.

ROBBINS: Aside from talk shows and official voter pamphlets, there's been very little debate and very little money spent on either side of this year's ballot propositions. One would deny bail to illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes, another would deny them punitive damages in lawsuits. A third denies them in-state college tuition, and the fourth mandates English as the state's official language. Lydia Guzman is chair of the Coalition for Latino Political Action in Phoenix. She says underneath the specifics, the intent of all the measures is the same.

Ms. LYDIA GUZMAN (Chair, Coalition for Latino Political Action): What we've got are folks that are trying to send a message, trying to attack the voiceless. That's the bottom line: How can we stick it to the undocumented person?

Mr. DEAN MARTIN (Arizona State Senator): This is not about who you are, not about where you came from, it's only about how you got here.

ROBBINS: Arizona State Senator Dean Martin supports the propositions.

Mr. MARTIN: We as a nation need to do a lot of things when it comes to fixing our immigration problems. The first thing has to be - is to make sure that we're not providing an incentive for people to break the law.

ROBBINS: Take the proposition to deny in-state tuition. Lydia Guzman says that will just punish children, Arizona's future.

Ms. GUZMAN: Denying them in-state tuition will totally make higher education unattainable for those thousands and thousands of students in Arizona that are here without documentation.

ROBBINS: Martin says it's legal residents and citizens who need to be protected from rising education costs.

Mr. MARTIN: This isn't denying anyone access, it just says we're going to treat those foreign citizens who are here illegally the same way we treat U.S. citizens from California, Texas, New Mexico or Florida.

ROBBINS: But college tuition breaks are not the primary reason people immigrate illegally. Even those who support these propositions agree it's work that brings people here. But enforcing immigration laws is primarily a federal job, so on the state and local level the Urban Institute's Randy Capps says this is about frustration.

Mr. CAPPS: As long as there's a perception that the federal government is not in control of immigration policy, either in terms of employers and who's hiring undocumented immigrants or the border or just the immigrant population generally, I think that we'll continue to see more activity at the state and local level.

ROBBINS: The real impact of these efforts may be small. No one knows, for instance, how many illegal immigrants actually pay in-state tuition to attend Arizona colleges, but that doesn't seem to matter. According to the most recent poll, all four propositions on the Arizona ballot are leading handily.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

CHADWICK: And here's an online reminder. We've had this month-long series on top political issues in Western states. You can see all of them at npr.org.

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