Arizona Is Immigration ‘Test Case’ Zero With Hispanic Gains

Jay Stewart carries a handgun to protect his family from smugglers who move illegal drugs and people through the desert near his home south of Phoenix. Miguel Espinoza crossed the border 17 years ago to escape a Mexican territory where drug lords rule.

The men, a 46-year-old airline pilot with two children and a 32-year-old landscaper with four, are in different ways part of the Arizona’s future. The makeup of the state, a flash point in the U.S. debate over immigration, changed so much in the last decade that if birth rates and other factors hold steady, Arizona will be majority Hispanic in a generation, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

The 2010 census found 43.2 percent of Arizonans under 18 were Hispanic and that whites were for the first time in a minority in that age group, at 41.6 percent. The ethnic and generational changes set the stage for Arizona to become a “test case” for responding to demographic trends as the U.S. becomes more diverse and increasingly Hispanic, said Jeff Milem, an education professor University of Arizona in Tucson.

“Arizona seems to be in the forefront,” he said. “We’ve got to lay the groundwork now for people to come together.”

For Stewart, Espinoza illustrates the complexity of the issue. In the U.S. illegally, the landscaper is considering agreeing to deportation so he can apply from Mexico for residency. If not for Espinoza’s four children, Stewart said, he would be happy to see him banished.

Immigration Laboratory

“We’re talking about children who are by law American citizens,” said Stewart. “I don’t think you can penalize those children. But where does it end?”

Tests of the limits and effectiveness of immigration policies and procedures are under way in Arizona, where the Hispanic population increased 46.3 percent between 2000 and 2010 to account for 29.6 percent of the 6.4 million residents.

The state has the country’s most aggressive anti-illegal immigration law, which drew boycotts and complaints of racial profiling after Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed it last April. The Legislature last year banned ethnic studies courses in schools and community colleges. Attorney General Tom Horne declared the Mexican-American Studies Program in Tucson schools illegal, calling it “brainwashing.”

Last week, after lobbying by business leaders, the senate rejected bills designed to catch people in Arizona illegally, and to deny citizenship to illegal immigrants’ children. Still alive in the House is legislation to allow Arizona to contract with other states to build walls along the border with Mexico.

‘Pointing Fingers’

The state’s budget shortfall is what lawmakers should be addressing, said Senator Steve Gallardo, a Democrat.

“When the economy was doing well and we had a $1 billion surplus, nobody was pointing fingers” at illegal immigrants, Gallardo said. With a projected $1.4 billion deficit, “this is not an issue the state should be trying to solve.”

Brewer, the governor, has said Arizona should challenge the U.S. over immigration policy. Services provided to illegal immigrants costs the state about $1 billion a year, said Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson.

The law she signed requires immigrants to carry residency papers and forces police officers to check the status of anyone stopped for questioning. A federal judge blocked enforcement of the police provision while a lawsuit by the U.S. challenging its constitutionality makes its way through the courts.

Seeing Footprints

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal residents in its count.

According to census data released March 10, whites grew 12.9 percent to account for 57.8 percent of the Arizona population, while blacks gained 59.5 percent to 3.7 percent and Asians advanced 90.9 percent to 2.7 percent.

The overall growth rate of 24.6 percent means the state will gain a ninth seat in the U.S. House. The representatives now are five white Republicans, two Hispanic Democrats and one white Democrat. The U.S. senators, both white, are Republicans.

A new electoral map to be drawn for the 2012 elections isn’t expected to bring major changes, said Tom Rex, associate director of Arizona State University’s Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research. He said districts will likely remain either “heavily Democrat or heavily Republican.”

In his private plane last week, Stewart swooped over the cactus-strewn desert to see tire tracks left by smugglers who trade in both drugs and people. He said he’s spotted campsites and abandoned vehicles, and has seen footprints near his house.

Carrying Guns

They are signs of the worst dangers of open borders, he said, because drug traffickers help Mexicans who want to make it to Phoenix to find work by hiring them as mules.

“I’ll guarantee you right now there are people within a mile of us,” Stewart said. “They’re just not easy to see.”

In September, Border Patrol agents flushed a drug gang spotter from a cave on a mountain peak overlooking Stewart’s home, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said. A week earlier, one of Stewart’s neighbors reported the theft of rifles, food, binoculars and clothing from her house.

Stewart decided to carry a pistol at home and to teach his wife, son and daughter how to shoot.

“Getting up every morning and putting on a gun is not a normal thing,” he said. “I fear for my family when I leave.”

Espinoza fears for his as well, he said outside a hearing room where he had just told a judge he would be voluntarily deported if it would expedite his application for residency.

‘I’m Scared’

That would mean going to a country where homicides related to organized crime increased by almost 60 percent last year to more than 15,273, according to Mexican government data. His home state is Sinaloa, for which the Sinaloa Cartel, among the oldest drug gangs in the country, is named.

“Going back to Mexico, I’m scared,” Espinoza said.

In that country, he said, “to provide a better life for my children is going to be difficult.”

Espinoza said he has little choice but to consider leaving. Since the anti-immigration law went into effect, he said his landscaping business has been cut in half because people aren’t comfortable hiring him. He wants to become a citizen so he can vote, frustrated at not having had a say in the political progress that created a law he said “isn’t just.”

‘Cloaked Brutality’

The publicity surrounding it may have limited growth in the Hispanic population, said Arizona State’s Rex. “If you were a Mexican waiting for the economy to get better to cross the border, would you even consider going to Arizona with all of these restrictive laws rather than some other state?”

In Phoenix, there are still daily protests outside the Senate Office Building. Last week, Phoenix truck driver Jose Higuera, 64, a legal resident, marched as he held a sign saying “Cloaked Brutality -- Racial Profiling.” The business leaders who opposed the bills rejected by the senate last week said in a letter that the Legislature’s focus on immigration was hurting the Arizona economy by driving away customers. Brewer has said boycotts have cost the state as much as $150 million.

Lawmakers in other states who followed Arizona’s lead haven’t succeeded so far. Bills to regulate immigration are stalled in the Kansas and New Mexico legislatures.

Utah took another approach, adopting a measure this month that would allow illegal immigrants with jobs and no serious criminal records to be legal residents under state law. President George W. Bush advocated a similar guest-worker program for the U.S.

‘Not Fair’

Immigration has proved volatile in Washington. The Dream Act, which would provide permanent residency to most college graduates and military veterans who arrived in the U.S. illegally, passed the House and was blocked in the Senate in December by a filibuster.

The alienation of conservative Hispanics, illegal or not, may be an unfortunate, unavoidable consequence of attempts to solve a serious problem, said Courtney Snell, a Tea Party activist who lives in Mesa outside Phoenix.

“Many of the people who have lived in Arizona for centuries and are of Hispanic descent are being grouped among the illegals,” said Snell, who has Hispanic in-laws and half-Hispanic grandchildren. “I agree that’s not fair, but that’s just life until you get it fixed.”

The state would be better served by focusing less on restrictive measures and more on how to prepare those already here for an increasingly competitive economy, said Milem, the University of Arizona professor.

Alienating Hispanics

Before the middle of the century, Arizona will depend on Hispanics more than whites to generate the taxes that will pay for services, including police protection.

“The future of the state depends on the education of young kids of color who have not been served well,” Milem said.

A 2007 survey of ability in reading, math and science found 58 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders “below basic,” according to an Arizona State University report, compared with 28 percent of whites and 20 percent of Asians.

There is an income gap as well, according to census data. The white non-Hispanic median household income in Arizona was $55,608 in 2009, and $39,133 for Hispanics.

Republicans should worry about alienating the state’s fastest-growing population group, said Deedee Garcia Blasé, founder of Somos Republicans, or We Are Republicans, which claims 6,000 members nationwide, including 4,000 in Arizona. The solution, she said, is to vote out anti-immigration lawmakers.

“I’m for cutting off the hand of the GOP in order to save the whole body,” she said. “I’m seeing this first-hand destroy the Republican Party.”

The polarization disturbs Hannibal Chinchilla, a retired Marine and financial planner in Tucson. The heated debate may diminish as whites and Hispanics realize that they need each other to prosper, he said.

“Both need to come halfway,” Chinchilla said. “Here we are and we are a big part of the demographics and the growth of this country.”