The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigrant Laws

This is the last of a three-part report.

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce i i

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce is behind many of the state's tough anti-immigrant laws. His son, a police officer, was shot by an illegal immigrant. Some think he may be working out his grief on the state of Arizona. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce is behind many of the state's tough anti-immigrant laws. His son, a police officer, was shot by an illegal immigrant. Some think he may be working out his grief on the state of Arizona.

AT Willet for NPR
Pearce and John Wayne i i

Pearce poses in front of a photo of John Wayne, which he says gives him inspiration. He knew Wayne and would visit the iconic movie star’s ranch in Northern Arizona. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Pearce and John Wayne

Pearce poses in front of a photo of John Wayne, which he says gives him inspiration. He knew Wayne and would visit the iconic movie star’s ranch in Northern Arizona.

AT Willet for NPR

If Arizona State Rep. Russell Pearce has his way, citizenship would no longer be automatic for everyone born on U.S. soil. Pearce is the man behind some of the toughest state immigration laws in recent years. So far he's pushed through a dozen or so pieces of legislation and he's prepared to keep fighting.

“I will not back off until we solve the problem of this illegal invasion,” he says, from an office decorated with awards, keepsakes and photos of fellow fighters Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. “Invaders, that’s what they are. Invaders on the American sovereignty and it can’t be tolerated.”

Pearce, a Republican who represents the conservative city of Mesa, sees the law as his weapon.

“I believe in the rule of law … I’ve always believed in the rule of law. We’re a nation of laws,” he says.

As the chairman of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee, he is in a choice position to try to push through the laws that he sees fit. He co-wrote Prop 200, which restricted illegal immigrants' access to state services and sponsored Arizona's employer sanction law, which suspends or revokes business licenses if employers knowingly hire illegal immigrants. He also says he may introduce legislation to challenge the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, meaning a child born in the U.S. would no longer automatically become a citizen.

A sheriff’s deputy for 23 years, before being elected as a state representative, he says that the half-million mostly Mexican illegal immigrants in Arizona are breaking the law simply by living there.

The Roots of a Tough Stance

Pearce's single-minded dedication to the issue of illegal immigration may have to do with his personal history, some of his colleagues say. As a cop Pearce was shot in the chest and finger by a gang member. Three years ago, his son, also a sheriff's deputy, was severely wounded by a criminal who happened to be an illegal immigrant.

“Did it cause for some recommitment? I suspect I had some influence there,” he says.

Pearce claims illegal immigrants are responsible for much of Arizona’s crime and he admits to feeling uncomfortable with the way society is changing in Arizona. He attributes it partly to Mexicans' and Central Americans' “way of doing business.”

“Drive around parts of Phoenix. I get calls all the time and it’s not that they’re Hispanic, it’s because the culture is different. The gangs are bigger. There’s more violence, kidnappings are way up,” he says.

Opposition to Pearce

Opponents say Pearce is a racist — a charge he vehemently denies. A devout Mormon, he says he is simply committed to the church's command for obedience to the law.

Bill Konopnicki, another Morman Republican state representative in Arizona, says that Pearce is sincere.

"I think Rep. Pearce really genuinely believes what he's doing is the correct thing ... and it's hard to argue against that position," he says.

He disagrees with his colleague's position, however. There's little evidence that illegal immigrants commit more crime than the rest of the population, he says, adding that the Mormon Church calls for compassion toward the stranger.

But Russell Pearce is in power at the right time in the right place. Arizona is experiencing the biggest influx of legal and illegal immigration in its history, making it the testing ground for state legislation against illegal immigrants. Russell Pearce is fond of saying he's only helping "take back America one state at a time."

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