Arizona Breathes New Life Into Immigration Overhaul : It's All Politics Arizona has passed the strictest immigration measure in the nation. Will it finally get Congress to act on the issue?
NPR logo Arizona Breathes New Life Into Immigration Overhaul

Arizona Breathes New Life Into Immigration Overhaul

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When the Republicans were in power, they had their chance to do something about immigration.  They tried but failed.

The GOP was split in two.  One wing -- led by President Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- worked to liberalize the laws that would eventually lead to legalization of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.  But many GOP members of Congress insisted the real problem, and the first needing fixing, was the porous border with Mexico.  Anything short of that was amnesty.  (The button used for illustration at the top of this post is from a right-wing group.)

Bush did not give the issue simple lip service; it was something close to his heart.  He was elected and re-elected governor of Texas by reaching out to Hispanics -- a strategy at complete odds with what California Republicans did with the anti-immigration Proposition 187 in 1994.  That initiative helped Gov. Pete Wilson (R) win re-election ... but at a cost: the party had said adios to Latino voters.  Bush was determined to reverse that trend.

Yes, border security is important, and employers need to be accountable with whom they hire.  But Bush, in speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in 2006, said it was more than that:

Some members of Congress argue that no one who came to this country illegally should be allowed to continue living and working in our country, and that any plan that allows them to stay equals amnesty, no matter how many conditions we impose.

I appreciate the members are acting on deeply felt principles. I understand that. Yet I also believe that the approach they suggest is wrong and unrealistic.  There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program that requires every illegal immigrant to leave.

But then came the 2006 elections, in which Republicans lost their majority in both houses of Congress.  While immigration was hardly what made Nancy Pelosi speaker that year, it still seemed to backfire on those Republicans who tried to make it a wedge issue.

And then, after 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, it was the Democrats' turn to do something about the situation.  And they too had their internal divisions.  Despite Obama's pledge that immigration was a top priority, there were a lot of other priorities fighting for Congress' attention as well.  Like health care.  Financial deregulation.  Climate control.  And a new Supreme Court opening.

Plus, with nearly 10 percent unemployment, many Democrats were skittish to take on an issue that could be transformed -- or demagogued -- into one where "they" would be taking "our" jobs.  Yes, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were trying to work on a bipartisan plan.  But Democrats for the most part were not confident; as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said, "Republicans have all run so hard right in the campaign season that it's hard to believe that we're capable of doing anything like that [overhaul] until the frenzy has calmed."

Translation:  Democrats didn't have the votes either.

And then came Arizona.

One week ago today, the Arizona state Senate passed what has widely been described as the most sweeping, stringent anti-immigration laws in the country.  It would allow authorities to demand proof of legal status from anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, and if that were proved to be the case, they would be deported. 

The measure was the pet cause of GOP lawmaker Russell Pearce, who for years was best known for his promotion of ways to keep illegal immigrants out of the country ... at least out of Arizona.  A recent New York Times profile of Pearce, by Randal Archibold, noted that "not long ago" he was "seen by many as an eccentric firebrand," a "politically incorrect embarrassment by more moderate members of his party -- often to the delight of his supporters."  According to that Times profile, in 2007 Pearce appeared in a photograph with a man who was a featured speaker at a neo-Nazi conference (Pearce says he was unaware of the man's connection with teh group) and in 2006 he spoke admirably of a 1950s program called Operation Wetback, "and for sending an e-mail message to supporters that included an attachment — inadvertently, he said — from a white supremacist group."  

But things once thought to be out of the mainstream are no longer.  The profile continued to say that Pearce "cannot be dismissed as just the party’s right-wing fringe. As chairman of the Senate’s appropriation committee, he controls whose bills are financed, and he has shown an uncanny knack to capitalize on this border state’s immigration anxiety."

Sen. McCain, who faces a tough primary challenge in August from ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth -- he says McCain is soft on immigration -- endorsed the bill, calling it a "good tool."  (A N.Y. Times editorial on April 22 ripped McCain for his "pandering.")

Every Arizona Republican House member and all but one state senator voted for it; the one senator who voted no is leaving office because of term limits.  The votes even came from moderates like state Rep. Bill Konopnicki, who conceded, "Everybody was afraid to vote no on immigration."

Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who ascended to the office last year when Janet Napolitano (D) joined the Obama Cabinet, signed the bill on Friday.  She too is facing primary challengers from the right.

(Napolitano had previously vetoed similar legislation.)

Even before Brewer signed the measure, Obama strongly criticized it as "misguided," saying it threatened to "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe."

Whatever you think of what happened in Arizona -- a state probably more affected by illegal immigration than any other, a state that has seen a rise in crimes coming from across the border with Mexico -- if nothing else it points to the fact that Washington has not acted.

But now it might.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now suggesting that it could come up right after the Memorial Day break.  And now some of the same Democrats who were afraid to touch the third rail of immigration now suddenly see it as a winning issue.  The Washington Post's Kornblut & Hsu write:

Some Democrats have calculated that even if an immigration bill fails, a debate on it could rally their base and mobilize Hispanic voters against GOP lawmakers in some districts. And while it could also energize Republican voters, some Democrats said the Arizona bill has also provided them with the opportunity to put Republicans on the defensive nationally.

But if what we're talking about is just politics and political advantage -- and not fixing the problems -- then nothing changes.

Meanwhile, there will be legal challenges to the new Arizona law, which is scheduled to take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends -- probably by August.  Brewer herself has been careful to say that racial profiling, which opponents of the law fear is likely to happen, would not be tolerated.  Still, she added, "We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act.  But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."

Flashback:  Here's the ad Pete Wilson used regarding his efforts against illegal immigration that helped him win re-election in California in 1994.