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An All-Out Assault on Immigration

How did the Arizona legislature become such a hothouse of extreme legislation?

In the spring of 2010, the Arizona legislature passed one of the harshest immigration measures in years: SB1070, which makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry documentation at all times. The law ignited a national uproar, the Justice Department announced that it plans to sue the state, and Arizona was pilloried in the press for encouraging racial profiling. Now, however, the state legislature is considering several bills that could be even worse.

In recent weeks, conservative state lawmakers have introduced a series of bills that target the most vulnerable sections of the immigrant community: children and the sick. One proposal would require public schools to count undocumented students and report their numbers to the Arizona department of education. It would also require the state department of education to submit an annual report to the governor outlining the “adverse impact” of students who are here illegally. “This legislation is designed to do one thing,” says Democratic State Senator Steve Gallardo. “Scare people [who may be undocumented] from sending their kids to school.” The language in the bill is so broad that it would require the department to calculate the cost of educating legal immigrants (including, for example, refugees and green card holders), as well as undocumented students. If schools don’t collect the data, the bill says, they could lose state funding.

Another measure would end birthright citizenship in Arizona for children without at least one legal parent, in blatant contradiction of the fourteenth amendment. A similar bill seeks to establish two classes of birth certificates: one for children with at least one legal immigrant parent, and another for children of the undocumented. Republicans in the state Senate have also introduced legislation that would require Arizona hospitals to check the immigration status of incoming patients.  

It’s unclear whether any of these bills will become law, but they prompt a larger question: How did the Arizona legislature become such a hothouse of extreme legislation? As it happens, SB 1070 and the latest anti-immigration measures all have something else in common besides their draconian nature. They were sponsored and pushed by the same powerful Republican legislator: newly elected state Senate President Russell Pearce.

Pearce, 63, once described himself as the “John Wayne of the legislature,” and he has the biography to back up his claim. He is a descendent of one of the original Arizona Rangers—a Rough Rider–esque band of men who rid the Arizona territory of roving marauders at the turn of the century. In the mid ‘90s, he was chief deputy to Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who required inmates in local prisons to wear pink underwear and is under investigation by the Justice Department for alleged discrimination against Hispanics. Pearce took credit for Arapio’s infamous “tent city” complex in the Phoenix desert that houses almost 1,500 inmates with minimal shelter from heat and extreme weather. White-haired and heavy-set, Pearce’s right hand is missing a finger—it was shot off by a suspected gang member.

In 2000, Pearce won a seat in the state House, representing a district that the Arizona Republic has described as a “bunker” for the “hard-right.” He has been pushing harsh immigration measures ever since. But in his early political career, he had a hard time translating his proposals—such as a bill requiring Child Protective Services case workers to report illegal immigrants—into law. He was “a back bencher with no discernible skills,” one conservative operative told me. “A junior high school student would have received an F for the things he wrote.”  Until relatively recently, says Gallardo, Pearce “could not get any position in the [Senate] leadership” because he was simply too conservative.

That all started to change as immigration increasingly came to dominate Arizona politics. In 2004, Pearce co-authored a ballot initiative that would require identification to vote or apply for public benefits. Opponents worried that the vague boundaries of “public benefit” would have unintended consequences—such as ambulances refusing to pick up Hispanics. Although every member of Arizona’s national congressional delegation opposed the proposition, including John McCain, it passed with 56 percent of the vote.

By the 2006 mid-term elections, immigration had become a national flashpoint. That year, Pearce advocated reinstating “Operation Wetback,” which allowed the INS to deport over a million Mexican nationals starting in 1954. The next year, he wrote a law that suspended the business licenses of employers of illegal immigrants. At the time, it was regarded as the strictest employer sanction legislation ever passed. (The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering its constitutionality). Pearce’s profile in the state was rising. “I will not back off until we solve the problem of this illegal invasion,” he told NPR. “Invaders, that’s what they are. Invaders on the American sovereignty and it can’t be tolerated.” In 2008, he was elected to the state Senate.

Two years later, Pearce co-wrote SB 1070 and became the front-man in the successful effort to push it through the legislature. Despite the national backlash, the law played well to conservative Arizonans. Republican Governor Jan Brewer, then in the midst of a tight primary race, backed the bill and went on to win both the primary and the general election. Glenn Hamer, the president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, told me that Brewer was likely to win but “signing SB 1070 gave her the political equivalent of an iron man suit.” Bruce Merrill, an Arizona pollster, echoed this assessment: “[I]f she hadn’t signed 1070, she wouldn’t have been elected governor.”

As for Pearce, in the run-up to the elections he devoted himself to raising money for conservative candidates facing close battles. Not all of them won, but his efforts almost certainly helped Republican candidates capture three districts in southern Arizona that Democrats had recently dominated.  Now, the legislature has become even more conservative than it was when SB1070 passed. Republicans hold 70 percent of the seats in the state Senate, compared to 60 percent before the election; and they made similar gains in the House. When it came time for the Republican senate caucus to elect their president in November, Pearce won by a narrow margin—empowering him to set the legislative agenda and control the channels through which bills reach the floor.

Pearce declined repeated requests to comment for this article. Within the legislature, there are varying opinions over whether the anti-immigration measures he has championed will ever become law. In recent weeks, all of them have stalled in committee. The Republican chair of the legislature’s education panel, for instance, has said that he will refuse to hear the bill that requires the state to count undocumented immigrants. As Senate President, however, Pearce can easily get around this obstacle by reassigning the bill to another committee. At this late stage in the session, the prospects for that are “very slim,” says the bill’s co-sponsor in the House, Republican Rep. John Kavanagh. However, the bill could still be attached as an amendment to another law, and Democrats warn that bills are never dead until the session ends.“When the Senate President is a prime sponsor,” says Minority Leader David Schapira “anything can happen.” No one thought SB 1070 was going to pass, he adds, and look how that turned out.

If the bill does pass, it may prove difficult to defeat in court. According to the ACLU, the education bill violates a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, that forbade Texas public schools from charging illegal immigrants for tuition on the logic that doing so would create what the ruling described as a “subclass of illiterates within our boundaries.” Even one of the bill’s cosponsors, Republican Representative John Kavanagh, admitted that although the bill’s ostensible purpose was not to deter immigrant students from enrolling in Arizona schools, it “certainly could” have that effect in practice. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented the students in Plyler, says it has heard reports that asking undocumented parents for their social security numbers can dissuade them from sending their children to school. 

However, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped draft SB 1070, believes it will be tough for the bill’s opponents to marshal hard data, rather than anecdotal evidence, to convince a court that the law deters enrollment. “The law merely collects information,” says Kobach. Any claims of a chilling effect, he adds, “would be purely based on speculation.”

Whatever happens, Pearce and the newly elected Arizona conservatives are capable of doing real damage to immigrant rights. Last week, Democratic state Senator Krysten Sinema called to alert me to a measure that had passed the Government Reform committee. Among other things, the bill would allow legal residents to be evicted from public housing if they live with undocumented immigrants. Sinema pointed out to the committee that when a similar proposal had been introduced the previous year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had sent a letter stating that the measure would unlawfully pre-empt the federal government’s authority. In a committee meeting when, Sinema distributed the letter to her colleagues. Republican Senator Lori Klein—a Pearce ally who has said she carries a handgun in her purse while on the Senate floor—turned to a fellow Republican and remarked: “We don’t care what the federal government thinks, do we?” Sinema told me that there are now more ideologues in the Senate than ever before: “It’s crazy town.”

Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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