The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigrant Laws State Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa is leading the legislative charge against illegal immigrants. If he had his way, citizenship would no longer be automatic for everyone born on U.S. soil.
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The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigrant Laws

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The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigrant Laws

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The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigrant Laws

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of all the states that are cracking down on illegal immigrants, one state is leading the way and one man is leading the charge. The state is Arizona. The man is State Representative Russell Pearce. He comes from Mesa, Arizona, and he's one of three people we're meeting this week who are determined to make a difference in the immigration debate.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports on a single-minded lawmaker.

TED ROBBINS: If interior designers had a name to describe Russell Pearce's office, it'd probably be vintage politico. His walls and desk are covered with the kinds of awards, keepsakes and handshake photos politicians love.

Pearce looks around and decides two photos give him the most consistent inspiration: a smiling Ronald Reagan and John Wayne in a cowboy outfit. Two icons of law and order.

Before Russell Pearce was elected to serve conservative Mesa, next to Phoenix, he served 23 years as a sheriff's deputy.

State Representative RUSSELL PEARCE (Republican, Arizona): I believe in the rule of law, always have. I've always believed in the rule of law. We're a nation of laws.

ROBBINS: And Russell Pearce believes at least a half million people, illegal immigrants mostly from Mexico, are breaking the law simply by living in Arizona.

State Rep. PEARCE: I will not back off till we resolve this problem of this illegal invasion. Invaders, that's what they are. They're invaders on the American sovereignty and it can't be tolerated

ROBBINS: So Russell Pearce has been making laws to slow that invasion, more than a dozen so far. He co-wrote Prop 200, which restricted illegal immigrants' access to state services. He sponsored Arizona's employer sanction law, which suspends or revokes business licenses if employers knowingly hire illegal immigrants. And he says he may introduce legislation to challenge the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives automatic citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.

Russell Pearce is surfing a wave of frustration with Congress's inaction on immigration.

State Rep. PEARCE: ...say aye.

Unidentified People: Aye.

Pearce's power as a lawmaker comes from his position as chair of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee. He helps decide which bills get heard. In the give and take world of legislation, that's powerful leverage for getting your own bills passed.

(Soundbite of gavel banging)

State Rep. PEARCE: The House will now please come to order.

ROBBINS: When colleagues try to explain his single-minded dedication to the rule of law and to fighting illegal immigration, they cite to influences. First, as a cop Pearce saw the worst of society. He was shot in the chest and finger by a gang member. Three years ago his son, also a deputy, was severely wounded by a criminal who happened to be an illegal immigrant.

State Rep. PEARCE: Did it cause for some recommitment? I suspect it had some influence there.

ROBBINS: Pearce claims illegal immigrants are responsible for much of Arizona's crime and he admits to feeling discomfort over the way society here is changing in Arizona.

State Rep. PEARCE: Drive around parts of Phoenix. Drive around parts of Mesa. I get calls all the time and it's not because they're Hispanic, it's because the culture here, the gangs are bigger. There's more violence, kidnappings are way up. That's a Mexico and Central America way of doing business.

ROBBINS: Opponents say Pearce is a racist. It's a charge he vehemently denies. He is profoundly influenced by his religion. Pearce is a devout Mormon. He and others say he is deeply committed to the church's command for obedience to the law.

Bill Konopnicki is another Arizona Republican state representative. He too is Mormon.

State Representative BILL KONOPNICKI (Republican, Arizona): I think Representative Pearce really genuinely believes what he's doing is the correct thing to do and it's hard to argue against that.

ROBBINS: Konopnicki may not argue with Pearce's sincerity, but he disagrees with his colleague's position. He says there's little evidence that illegal immigrants commit more crime than the rest of the population. And he says 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.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can hear two other influential voices on immigration at npr.org.

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