Arizona: A Raging Debate on Immigration

With normal Republican allies such as business and anti-immigration activists divided over the state's tough immigration laws, Democrats hope they will carry the red state

Kevin Sandler compares it to a scene in the 1976 film Network. He wanted to open the window of his Phoenix office and scream: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Instead, Sandler, chief executive officer of audio-visual design engineering firm ExhibitOne, joined executives of PetSmart, Banner Health, Intel, and dozens of other Arizona employers in signing a letter in March that helped defeat a slate of immigration bills pending in the statehouse. Business leaders said they feared the measures, which included denying state citizenship to the children of illegal migrants, would deepen Arizona’s black eye from a 2010 immigration enforcement law that sparked a 16-month national boycott and, according to one study, will cost the state more than $250 million related to lost convention business. “It became crystal clear that unless we did something, the madness was going to continue,” says Sandler, 50, who believes his company was pushed out of bidding on a California municipal court project as a result of the controversial 2010 statute. “The business community needed to say, ‘Enough.’ ”

The fight over immigration makes Arizona a puzzle heading into the 2012 election. It divides normally Republican allies, such as business and anti-immigration activists, and gives Democrats hope that this is one red state they can turn blue. Favorite son John McCain won’t be leading the Republican ticket this time around, and Latinos, who typically vote Democratic, make up 25 percent of the state’s voting-age population.

Yet the President faces difficult challenges in this Southwestern state. When he tapped Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, for the Cabinet post of Homeland Security Secretary, the move elevated Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican, to the governor’s office and set off a chain of events that could shape politics in the state—and ultimately immigration policy at the national level—for years to come.

Amid heightened rhetoric about border security, Brewer signed SB 1070, which requires immigrants to carry documentation proving they are in the U.S. legally. The law also mandates that police check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. The Justice Dept. sued to block the statute, which only further galvanized Obama’s opponents. A handful of other states, including Georgia and Alabama, have since enacted laws modeled on Arizona’s.

At the same time, Latinos increasingly are feeling abandoned by Democrats and Obama, who has stepped up deportations and not followed through on promised immigration reform, says Rodolfo Espino, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University: “There is not a whole lot of excitement or enthusiasm as there might have been in 2008, and a lot of that is tied to his handling of immigration.”

U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Tucson Democrat who called for the boycott of his state after the law was passed, says he doesn’t think Latinos will vote Republican but is concerned that they’ll stay home on Election Day. “There is work to be done on motivation and reestablishing trust,” he says.

State residents from both parties are looking for federal leadership in solving the nation’s broken immigration system, says Democrat Terry Goddard, the former state Attorney General and Phoenix mayor who lost to Brewer in last year’s gubernatorial election. Arizona has become “the point of the spear,” Goddard says, because efforts to secure the border in Texas and California in the past decade have funneled illegal immigration through his state. “Arizonans want this fixed,” he says.

Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington says many of the 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona are poor, uninsured, and uneducated, taking a toll on government services and the economy. “This is why people in Arizona are frustrated,” he says.

Tom Franz, a retired Intel corporate vice-president who is now CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership, an association of top Arizona executives, says he would like to hear Presidential candidates talk about rational solutions at the federal level, something he doesn’t think they are doing: “The political posturing isn’t what is going to solve the problem.”

If Brewer has her way, border issues and the state will play a key role in choosing the Republican Presidential nominee. She says she wants to hear solid plans from the candidates for securing the U.S.-Mexico border. “America will be watching because we are the battleground,’’ she says. “We want answers.”

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