Arizona’s crackdown on illegal migrants feels familiar

As a Latino activist in California for decades, Salvador Reza witnessed a rise in illegal immigration in the 1980s and protested a plethora of harsh measures to control it in the ‘90s.

Now, as a transplanted Arizonan, he is experiencing a deep sense of deja vu.

Passage this week of a stringent Arizona bill that would require people to carry proof of legal status and mandate that police check for it is a replay of California’s own turbulent history with illegal immigration. Gov. Jan Brewer must still sign the bill before it becomes law and is widely expected to do so.

As in California a generation ago, the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona in the last decade has soared. The twin forces of immigration surges and economic distress have prompted Arizonans to push several strict measures to crack down on illegal migrants.

“In some ways, Arizona is a generation behind California,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles.

As Latinos mobilized in California, gaining allies across ethnic groups, the movement against illegal immigrants lost much of its steam here.

But that is unlikely to happen in Arizona any time soon, several analysts say. An overwhelmingly white and conservative electorate will continue to dominate immigration politics over Latinos, who constitute just 11.7% of registered voters and are themselves divided over how to treat illegal migrants. In addition, immigrant advocates so far have lacked the funding and major organizational muscle to mobilize widely.

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, the Republican legislator who wrote this week’s bill and a host of other hard-line measures targeting illegal immigrants recently, said the state will continue to crack down and predicted no backlash.

“The people are consistently for this,” Pearce said.

Others, however, argue that Arizona’s fast-growing Latino population will eventually begin flexing its political muscle to force a more moderate course on immigration. Nearly half of all K-12 students and babies born in the state are Latino.

“Demography is destiny,” said Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which helped register more than 55,000 new Latino voters in Arizona between 2004 and 2008.

The two states show several parallels but also striking differences in their immigration politics.

For decades, California was the prime destination for illegal immigrants, absorbing nearly half of the nation’s 3.5 million unauthorized migrants in 1990. The numbers began swelling in the ‘90s, which analysts attribute in part to global trade policies that devastated many Mexican villages and sent hundreds of thousands of people north.

At the same time, crackdowns at the border such as Operation Gatekeeper in the mid-'90s and post-9/11 security enhancements kept more migrants bottled up inside the U.S., increasing their numbers here.

In a key development, the crackdowns also shifted more migratory traffic from California and Texas to the sparsely populated, once-sleepy Arizona desert and then into local communities that had no history of significant migration.

“Arizona has a new experience with immigration it hasn’t felt so viscerally before,” said Louis DeSipio, UC Irvine professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies.

The various forces sent Arizona’s illegal immigrant population surging by 70% from 2000 to 2008, compared to 13.5% in California.

As new immigrants fanned out elsewhere, the growth of California’s immigrant population slowed; California-born residents now make up the state’s majority for the first time since the Gold Rush.

“There’s not a sense that illegal aliens are imposing a huge cost on the system, as it was believed a few decades ago,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of congressional and legislative elections.

A recent California poll by the Times and USC found less support for harsh measures against illegal immigrants than in the past, particularly among younger residents of every race. The poll showed that less than half of those polled - 45% -- supported eliminating social services and public education for illegal migrants. That compares with 59% of the electorate that voted for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that barred those services before most of its provisions were struck down by the courts.

Aside from the demographic changes, political shifts also influenced the changing California climate. The push against illegal immigrants prompted a movement by Latinos to mobilize, become citizens and vote, which is credited with helping the Democratic Party cement its statewide political dominance.

Efforts over the years to qualify new measures against illegal migrants have failed, and even many Republicans say the issue is a political loser.

“The reason Republicans aren’t taking on illegal immigration like they used to is there’s no benefit in it,” Quinn said. “The smart Republicans have figured out that Latinos are moving into the middle class very rapidly and are fundamentally conservative on economic issues. There is a lot of growing wealth in Latino and Asian communities. So there’s caution that this is a major voting bloc and one that Republicans want to get a piece of.”

But the story is far different in Arizona.

Latinos make up 30% of the state’s population but make up just 11.7% of the electorate, according to 2008 census data. Whites constitute 78% of voters, and they tend to be more conservative than their California counterparts.

Lisa Magana, an associate professor of trans-border studies at Arizona State University, said many of those voters have a “libertarian, Old West mentality” and strongly support Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a controversial critic of illegal immigration.

Without many liberal and moderate white, Asian and African American allies to join with Latinos, as occurred in California, it will be hard to transform Arizona’s immigration politics, DeSipio said.

The state is firmly controlled by Republicans, and the Democratic Party is weaker than California’s was in the 1990s, analysts say. Some politicians argue that gerrymandering has made it hard to oust state legislators who have been the source of much of the hard-line laws.

“Even though voter outrage can be significant, it’s hard for that to be reflected in state legislative districts,” said state Rep. Daniel Patterson, a Democrat who represents an immigrant-heavy district in Tucson.

Arizona Latinos also lack the long history of activism experienced in California, the same degree of heavyweight ethnic and immigrant rights organizations and such iconic Latino leaders as union leader Cesar Chavez and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Ricardo Ramirez, USC assistant professor of political science, said that with foundation money drying up, smaller organizations in places like Arizona are hard-pressed to attract support to register voters and organize around actions.

Reza added that Arizona Latinos don’t have the same “activist consciousness” found in California. Many of them are second- and third-generation Americans who are deeply assimilated, do not speak fluent Spanish and have mixed feelings toward their immigrant brethren, he said.

Two-thirds of Arizona Latinos are American-born, and 47% of them supported a 2006 state initiative that required proof of citizenship to register to vote -- a measure that immigrant activists bill as the toughest voting law in the nation.

“In Arizona, there are very few people who are willing and able to struggle for the rights of Latinos like in California,” Reza said.

Pearce and other hardliners regularly cite the support of Latinos for the 2006 initiative as evidence that their crackdown is not motivated by racial animus and won’t spark a reaction similar to the one in California. “This is not a race issue,” Pearce said. “This is a respect-for-law-and-order issue.”

But over time, as Latinos become a larger part of the electorate, the politics will probably change, Magana and others say.

When that happens, Arizona legislators will have to walk a fine line between appealing to their mostly white Republican base while not alienating their future Latino constituents, she said. “It’s a really hard dance.”


Watanabe and Gorman reported from Los Angeles, Riccardi from Phoenix.