TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Arizona's controversial new immigration law is just one of several controversial new laws passed by the state legislature this session. Journalist Howard Fischer says this year, the stars have finally aligned for fiscal and political conservatives in Arizona.

Fischer has been covering Arizona state politics since 1982. He now runs the company Capitol Media Services and reports for news institutions around the state, including Arizona Public Radio.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the immigration bill into law on April 23rd, and it ignited a debate across the U.S. and Mexico. The new law requires police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally.

After protests about the probability of racial profiling, a modification was passed that says race or ethnicity cannot be the basis for questioning a person and that an officer can only ask for a person's papers if the officer has already stopped the person while enforcing another law.

Also, according to the new law, a legal immigrant who is stopped but it is not carrying their immigration papers can be charged with a misdemeanor. Immigrants unable to produce documents showing they're in the U.S. legally could be arrested, jailed for up to six months and fined $2,500. It's up to the local police to decide if they'll keep the immigrant in prison or turn them over to federal officials.

Some local police departments don't want to carry out the law, but another provision states that citizens can file lawsuits against police departments or other government agencies if they're not enforcing the law. Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, and is the nation's busiest border crossing point.

Howard Fischer, welcome to FRESH AIR. The immigration bill is one of several very conservative laws that have been passed in this session of the Arizona State Legislature. Can we just run through a few of those bills? Let's start with guns. What did the Arizona State Legislature pass about guns?

Mr. HOWARD FISCHER (Journalist, Capitol Media Services): Oh, we were very busy with guns out here. The most sweeping would allow any adult to carry a concealed weapon without bothering to get a state permit, which means no training, no background check. Only two other states actually allow that now, Alaska and Vermont, clearly much smaller states.

There's also a bill that the governor signed which said if you manufacture a gun in Arizona, you can possess it in Arizona without those pesky federal firearms regulations. There's another bill also on her desk to preempt local gun regulations that are stricter.

This is a governor who believes very much in the Second Amendment, as she sees it. She spoke last year to the National Rifle Association national convention, and she believes that there is an unrestricted right to carry weapons, and most lawmakers apparently go along.

GROSS: So, in other words, if you want to carry a concealed weapon, you don't need a permit? You don't need training? You don't need to be registered?

Mr. FISCHER: Up until now in Arizona, you could carry anyone can carry openly. And those are laws that date back to territorial days. You'd want to walk around the street with a .45 strapped to your hip and everyone can see it, you're free to do that.

If you wanted to carry a concealed weapon, you had to go through certain basic training, how to handle the weapon, knowing when you can use deadly physical force. You also had to undergo a background check.

Under the law that takes effect on July 29th, any adult who is allowed to carry a gun - in other words, you're not a convicted felon or something like that -will be able to carry concealed. The argument is, well, what's the difference whether you have the gun outside your jacket or underneath your jacket?

There are obviously some folks who are very concerned that if everyone starts carrying concealed, will there be more threats on each other? There are other people who are saying, look, it's a right, not just under the Second Amendment. Arizona actually has a version of the Second Amendment that's even more absolute than the federal Constitution.

The federal Constitution talks about a well-regulated militia. Arizona's Constitution says there is an absolute right of Arizonans to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state, and there are a lot of people who believe whether it's open or concealed, it's the same right. Clearly, this governor also believes that, and that's why she signed the bill.

GROSS: What about ethnic studies? There's a new law about that in Arizona.

Mr. FISCHER: One of the largest school districts in the state, in Tucson, has an ethnic studies program. The idea behind it, according to the proponents, is that you build a certain amount of ethnic pride among the Hispanic students -and again, a city like Tucson, which is an old Spanish presidio, was part of Mexico long before it was part of Arizona, has a population down there that perhaps would do better with looking at the contributions of Latinos to the culture.

The concern has been that somehow, instead of building ethnic pride, it's building ethnic solidarity and perhaps a reverse racism, and so the legislature has enacted a bill to say you cannot have a course that teaches hatred of any other race - which sounds great on paper, and Tucson Unified School Districts insist they're not doing that now. The devil obviously is in the details, and we're going to see what happens because the state school superintendent down here has already said if the ethnic studies program in Tucson continues, under this new law, he will take them to court, and he will take it apart.

GROSS: And there's a new abortion law that was passed in Arizona.

Mr. FISCHER: Yes. They obviously can't go very far into overturning Roe versus Wade, but they nibbled around the edges. There's new reporting requirements, and then there's another one to tighten up on existing state law that prohibits public funding for abortions.

This one goes after some cities where, if you're an employee, you can get insurance coverage that includes elective abortion. This new law says no public funds in any way, shape or form can go into funding an abortion, even if it's only part of the coverage that you're getting as a city employee. How that's going to affect city coverage is going to be very tricky, because they're going to have to start separating out that kind of coverage.

This is not unusual for Arizona. The state has been tip-toeing around the edges of that for a while. We also have some new bills on embryonic research. I want you to know that officially now in Arizona, you cannot produce human-animal hybrids. So if anyone was worried that we were going to be creating minotaurs or mermaids in Arizona, I want you to know that's now against the law here.

GROSS: Why was that passed, a bill making it illegal to create human-animal hybrids? Had anybody suggested that they wanted to create human-animal hybrids?

Mr. FISCHER: There are some folks here who are very worried that, left to their own devices, scientists will look at the old "Jurassic Park" question that Jeff Goldblum asked, which is: The question isn't can we. The question is should we.

And sometimes science does get ahead of the ethics, and the lawmakers here are very concerned that somehow, some public moneys will be used, or even private moneys would be used to do research into something that they consider to be ethically improper.

Now, where's the line on that? I don't see anybody creating minotaurs, but I certainly see scientists who would like to use animal genes to perhaps cure certain human conditions. Whether this bill precludes that remains to be seen.

GROSS: One more bill I want to mention before we get to immigration, that is Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation giving her the power to sue the federal government over the new health care legislation. Explain that.

Mr. FISCHER: What happened was we have a Republican governor in Jan Brewer and a Democratic attorney general in Terry Goddard. Terry Goddard looked at the new federal law and concluded that there was no constitutional violation there, there was no mandate on states to do anything because it came down to the golden rule: If you want the federal government's gold, you live by their rules.

Jan Brewer clearly didn't see it that way and wanted to make a political statement. You have to remember that both Brewer and Goddard are running for governor this year, and so she got the Republican-controlled legislature to give her the authorization to join with the more than a dozen other states to go ahead and sue the federal government to try to argue that this is an unconstitutional mandate. It's beyond the scope of the federal government to control. It's beyond questions of interstate commerce, which is within Congress' control, and obviously, we'll see on a national level what a federal judge and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court decides.

GROSS: So Arizona seems to be headed legislatively in a very conservative direction. Governor Jan Brewer is Republican. She was preceded by Janet Napolitano, who's now the head of Homeland Security, and Napolitano is a Democrat. Are there bills that she would have vetoed if they came to her desk, Napolitano's desk? In other words, is there a big shift going on now in Arizona, a shift since Janet Napolitano left?

Mr. FISCHER: There's definitely a shift. In fact, some of the bills that are being signed now are ones that Janet Napolitano did veto in terms of easing the concealed carry laws, in terms of some of the abortion laws.

Janet Napolitano took a much more liberal - to the extent it's liberal and conservative issues in here - liberal view of the role of government, what it should be doing and the individual rights, the whole 10th Amendment states' rights argument. And so these are bills that have been pent up.

Six years of Janet Napolitano has left a lot of very frustrated Republican lawmakers. You have to remember, the legislature's been in Republican hands pretty much steadily since the 1960s, with a few exceptions. But we have elected Democratic governors. The Arizona voters seem to like that split government. We've had Bruce Babbitt - again, a fairly liberal person. We've had Rose Mofford. We've had Janet Napolitano.

But now, because of this peculiar accident, if you will, of politics, Janet Napolitano became the Homeland Security secretary. Jan Brewer, the elected secretary of state, became the governor once Janet quit. Nobody elected Jan Brewer governor, but she's the governor now, and the Republican-controlled legislature is bound and determined to take advantage of that, because it may not last.

As I mentioned, there's going to be a very divisive race this year. Brewer has three other Republicans running against her in the primary. Whoever survives that will likely run against Democrat Terry Goddard. And I think that the thought of Republican lawmakers of Governor Terry Goddard scares the you-know-what out of them, so they figured, you know, you've got to strike while the iron's hot.

GROSS: So this is the context in which the immigration bill was passed in Arizona.

Mr. FISCHER: This is the context of the immigration bill, because many of these bills, including the immigration bills, had been up before. For example, one of the provisions in the bill deals with day laborers, whether people can stop on streets to pick up day laborers near your Home Depot stores. Janet Napolitano vetoed that legislation. It's now part of the new immigration bill that's gotten all the national attention.

Some of the issues about identification cards, the issues about quote-unquote "sanctuary cities," one of the provisions in Senate Bill 1070 says it is illegal for a city to have a policy that precludes its police officers from enforcing federal immigration laws to the full extent permitted.

Janet Napolitano vetoed that bill, said it's none of the business of local police to be enforcing federal immigration law. In fact, she said, it actually works against local police because victims and witnesses won't come forward. Now it's part of the bill that Jan Brewer signed.

And so there is a sea change that's occurred here in Arizona because of the shift of who's in charge.

GROSS: Yeah, now let's talk more about the immigration bill. Basically, immigration is a federal issue. It's federal law. It's the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, that oversees that. So what does it mean to make it a state crime to be in this country in violation of federal immigration laws?

Mr. FISCHER: I think what you're seeing is a certain amount of frustration that the federal government has not done the job and particular in the case of Arizona.

We have seen, over the years the hardening of the border in California. It used to be you could run across the line right at Tijuana without any problem, or at Otay Mesa or something. Getting across the river at the Rio Grande in Texas was fairly easy. Those have been hardened.

That leaves 370 miles of Arizona-Sonora border, much of which is three strands of barbed wire. And so all of that pent-up demand in this country for labor, all of the drug traffic is now traveling through Arizona.

And so we've seen an increase in shootings. We've seen in increase in border crime. We've seen an increase in the number of drop houses. It is a frustration that's taken place that if the federal government isn't going to the job, if they're not going to add more border patrol, if they're not going to do more to catch illegals, that the state should do something.

And, again, remember, this isn't the first time Arizona has done something. Back in 2006, Arizona enacted the first ever employer sanctions law, which makes it a state crime for an employer to knowingly hire an undocumented worker. And - the idea being if we can't block the border because we don't have the troops to send down there, then at least try to get rid of some of the magnet. This is a product of years of frustration.

I mean, I lived in Southern Arizona. I've lived within 10 miles of the border, and it's not the old days where a few farm workers would come through and they'd stay for a few weeks and go back. You now have a criminal element coming in with drugs and coming back with guns, and a lot of people have had it and said what can the state do? This, they believe, is the answer.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Howard Fischer, and he's reported on Arizona state government since 1982. For the past 16 years, he's reported for Capitol Media Services, which he runs. He's a former associate editor of the Phoenix Business Journal, and his reports on Arizona state government are often heard on Arizona Public Radio. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about what's going on in Arizona politics. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Howard Fischer, and he reports on Arizona state government. He's been doing this since 1982, the last 16 years for Capitol Media Services. His reports are often heard on Arizona Public Radio.

So looking at the new Arizona, the controversial new Arizona immigration law, do you think that the Department of Justice will be challenging it because Arizona is, you know, requiring its police to investigate the legality of people who they may suspect of being illegal immigrants? The whole immigration law is basically a federal issue, not a state issue.

Mr. FISCHER: I think there are going to be two basic legal challenges. You hit on one of them, which is what the lawyers like to call field preemption. In other words, the federal government has determined: Only we set the policy of who is entitled to be in this country legally.

Now, there are exceptions. I mentioned earlier Arizona's employer sanctions law, and in fact, Congress did build an exception in to allow states to take away the business licenses of companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers. And the 9th Circuit has upheld Arizona's law there.

The argument of the proponents is that they are simply enforcing what's already federal law. They're not changing the law and they're not broadening the law in terms of who can be here legally, and Senator Russell Pearce, who crafted the measure, said that there is an inherent authority of local police to enforce federal law, and he claims to have the case law to back that up.

I would be very surprised if the Justice Department did not challenge that. We already know that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is going to challenge it, along with the ACLU.

The second legal issue is going to be whether the law results in racial profiling. Now, that's going to be what the lawyers like to call an as-applied challenge, that once the law takes effect - assuming it does take effect -whether people are being stopped by virtue of the fact that they're brown.

And while the law specifically says racial profiling is illegal - it's illegal under the U.S. Constitution - the law, after it was passed, was further amended to say you may not use race, ethnicity or national origin as a basis to stop someone.

Okay, well, then, what do you use as a basis to stop someone to ask questions about whether they're here illegally? You know, if you happen to be 6'2" and blonde, odds of you being questioned are probably a lot less than if you happen to be 5'3" and dark-skinned.

And so it's going to be a really tricky - real tricky question in terms of how do police enforce this without it being racial profiling. And I'm sure there'll be a challenge on that, also.

GROSS: Arizona's controversial immigration bill was sponsored by Russell Pearce. Tell us a little bit about him.

Mr. FISCHER: Russell is very conservative. I mean, his background is law enforcement. He was a sheriff's deputy. He was a justice of the peace. He has a child who was shot by an illegal immigrant. Russell sees things in very black-and-white ways.

I mean, I don't think there's racism there. I mean, Russell's son married a Hispanic woman. He's got Hispanic grandchildren. I've never seen Russell mistreat anybody personally, in all the years I've known him, based on race, color, ethnicity.

But Russell sees it in a very black-and-white way. If you ask for a single line that describes one of Russell's quotes, it's: What part of illegal don't you understand? You shouldn't be in the country. We're going to do what we can to enforce the rule of law. That's the way Russell sees things.

And he's obviously been tarred with being racist and everything else. Again, I think that's oversimplifying what's a much more complex problem. I think he believes that there's financial burden on the state. We talked a little bit about the number of kids in schools. We know that perhaps 17 percent of all prisoners in state prison are illegal immigrants who violate state law.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. The federal government has a State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. They are supposed to reimburse the states for the cost of housing illegal immigrants in state prisons. The federal government has reimbursed the states pennies on the dollar. So the feds haven't even stepped up for that.

So Russell said if you're not going to step up, then we're going to do what we need to do. And he sees it, again, as a law enforcement officer.

GROSS: Just one more question. Arizona does not practice Daylight Savings Time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...which I'm sure makes it really confusing when you do things with people who are out of state. So why don't they recognize Daylight Savings Time?

Mr. FISCHER: Well, the running joke out here is that there are lawmakers who believe that Daylight Savings Time is a communist plot, and I'm sure there are probably a few of them who do. I suppose the more practical answer is if you're in a state where it goes up to 120 during the day, the last thing you need in the middle of summer is another hour of daylight.

GROSS: Arizona politics is so controversial now. Is it hard for you to report on Arizona politics without becoming partisan?

Mr. FISCHER: Well, you have to look at it, I suppose, through an eye of - that this is a show being put on for my benefit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISCHER: And I know that sounds very self-centered as a journalist, but I've been covering the legislature since '82. I've been covering politics since 1970. And you have to just look at it as with sort of bemusement. There are always characters that come through Arizona politics.

We had a birther bill this year, for example, that actually got out of the House, that said if Barack Obama wants to run for reelection, he'd actually have to produce a birth certificate to the satisfaction of our secretary of state before he could be on the ballot here. I can't make this stuff up.

We had a lawmaker, name of Barbara Brewster, who, a number of years ago, put out a memo equating homosexuality with bestiality and cannibalism, who also went up to Senator Barbara Leff - who is a Jewish senator from Paradise Valley - and said to her: You can't be Jewish. You don't have a hooked nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISCHER: How can - you can't make this stuff up. I love covering Arizona politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, good luck with your continued coverage. Howard Fischer, thank you so much.

Mr. FISCHER: You're very welcome.

GROSS: Howard Fischer runs Capitol Media Services and reports on Arizona state politics for Arizona Public Radio and news organizations around the state.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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