Arizona Stirs Up Immigration Stew

Times Staff Writer

The passage of an Arizona voter initiative that blocks some public services for illegal immigrants has energized similar movements in other states, including California, and could influence the national immigration debate, say the initiative’s backers and experts on immigration.

Proposition 200 won handily, despite opposition from much of Arizona’s political establishment, including Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain.

The measure -- favored by 56% of voters -- requires applicants for some public benefits to present proof of citizenship. State workers who do not report to federal authorities illegal immigrants applying for benefits could be jailed.

The measure was a scaled-down version of California’s Proposition 187, which was passed by voters a decade ago but thrown out by the courts in part because it conflicted with federal laws.


It is unclear whether the Arizona initiative will survive expected court challenges, but supporters say its passage reflects a growing discontent with the federal government’s inaction on immigration issues.

Support for the initiative was strongest among white voters, but 47% of Latinos in Arizona supported the measure, according to some exit polls. In recent years, partly because of tighter security along the California-Mexico border, Arizona has emerged as the biggest illegal immigrant corridor in the U.S.

The momentum from Arizona could carry over, in particular to Colorado and California, where efforts are underway to get similar measures on ballots in 2006, say some analysts and groups favoring a crackdown on illegal immigration.

“It encourages us,” said Rick Oltman, western field director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which supports the proposed California “Save Our License” measure. “It shows, up against all odds, we can win.”


The proposed Colorado and California measures are patterned in part after Arizona’s Proposition 200.

Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, the group behind the California initiative, said the group had gathered about 100,000 signatures since September. At least 500,000 more need to be collected by February to qualify the measure for the ballot, he said.

The California initiative would block illegal immigrants from access to local and state benefits and from getting driver’s licenses. Citizens would also be able to sue state or local governments that did not comply with the law.

Organizers of a similar measure this year failed to get enough signatures to place it on the California ballot. Some analysts say the latest initiative also could run into difficulties because it likely won’t have support from many Republicans, who lost political clout because of their support for Proposition 187, perceived by many as anti-Latino.


“The Republican Party got badly burned,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant. “We’re not thrilled that we do that battle again.”

But Spence said his organization had proved its effectiveness, and that the Arizona measure’s success had boosted the morale of hundreds of California volunteers.

Last year, the California Republican Assembly gathered more than 400,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot in case the Legislature failed to repeal a bill granting illegal immigrants the ability to obtain driver’s licenses.

Some analysts think the initiative stands a solid chance of getting on the ballot, especially if organizers are able to receive funding from groups outside the state. The Arizona initiative’s main backer was FAIR, an immigration reform group based in Washington.


“I think it will pick up steam, but not because it will solve the immigration problem,” said Rick Swartz, a longtime Washington political consultant on immigration policy. “They can’t succeed in Congress, so they go to the states to generate a public backlash in order to have an angrier populace.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not commented on specific immigration proposals, but has repeatedly said that the state does not need to revisit Proposition 187.

In Arizona, passage of the measure prompted many illegal immigrants to keep their children home from school, a panic-like reaction reminiscent of Proposition 187’s aftermath. Attendance in Phoenix pre-schools had returned to normal by Thursday after teachers reassured parents that the measure would not affect schools.

Proposition 200 is expected to be challenged in the courts on various grounds. One likely point of litigation would be interpretation of what constitutes a public benefit.


Supporters say Proposition 200 is limited to welfare and other financial assistance. Opponents say it could apply to library visits, nonemergency medical care and other services.

Even if not implemented, some analysts say, the measure has sent a message to federal lawmakers. Some may feel pressure to address the issue before the initiative movement gathers momentum in other states.

“Arizona voters couldn’t have sent a clearer signal,” says Tamar Jacoby, of the Manhattan Institute think tank, who writes about immigration. “Like many Americans, they are deeply frustrated by illegal immigration, and they want the federal government to get to work on a solution -- now.”