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Listen to Arizona

ARIZONA HELD A referendum on immigration policy Tuesday. The winner was John McCain.

McCain, the state’s senior senator, wasn’t actually on the ballot. Rather, candidates across the state campaigned for or against an idea that McCain and a few other Arizonans in Congress have championed: a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that provides more visas for guest workers, modifies the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country and improves border security.

Critics of this approach, including Republican candidates for governor, attorney general and two of Arizona’s eight House seats, argued instead for sealing the borders and enforcing current immigration laws. They all were defeated, despite the frustration and anger expressed by many Arizonans about the torrent of border jumpers.

Those emotions were evident in the overwhelming support Tuesday for ballot initiatives to deny bail, curtail subsidies for education and childcare, limit civil damage awards for illegal immigrants and make English the state’s official language. Voters backed all these proposals, reflecting a widespread belief that illegal immigrants impose a variety of burdens on taxpayers.

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Nevertheless, voters in the state demanded a more nuanced and pragmatic solution than that being offered by the most virulently anti-illegal immigration candidates. The best illustrations came in the races for two House seats, one representing the sparsely populated border counties in southeastern Arizona and the other representing some upscale suburbs east of Phoenix. A six-term Republican incumbent, J.D. Hayworth, and a former Republican state representative, Randy Graf -- both known for their firebrand stances on border security -- lost to Democrats Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords, who had aligned themselves on immigration with McCain.

Graf was trying to win the seat occupied by retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, a longtime advocate for comprehensive reform. While McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) were steering their plan through the Senate, Kolbe and colleague Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were trying to push a similar approach through the House, with significant Democratic support. But they were rebuffed by Republican leaders who wanted to use immigration as a campaign issue -- in particular, by slamming Democrats for supporting “amnesty” and being soft on border security.

Now McCain and Flake may get their way. With Democrats in control of the House next year, the prospects for a comprehensive overhaul have improved dramatically. In fact, President Bush (who also supports that approach) singled out immigration Wednesday as an issue ripe for bipartisanship. The voters of Arizona have pushed a comprehensive solution one step closer to reality.


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