Arizona was once tolerant of illegal immigrants. What happened?


Arizona has made a name for itself as the state with the harshest policies against illegal immigration. But as few as six years ago, this border state was among the nation’s most welcoming of illegal immigrants.

Back then, its two Republican U.S. senators and one of its congressmen were among the strongest advocates of legalizing millions of illegal residents in the country. Mexico was the state’s largest trading partner, and the governor boasted of her warm relationships with counterparts across the border. Both political parties courted the Latino vote.

Now the state government is fighting an order by a federal judge who last week stayed key parts of a law, SB 1070, designed to drive illegal immigrants from Arizona.

How did things change so quickly?

“The perfect storm occurred,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. “There was a combination of demographic changes, the introduction of a criminal element that didn’t used to be here and the drop in the economy, which has put everyone on edge.”

Now just about every prominent Republican here, including Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, backs SB 1070 and opposes legalization for illegal immigrants. Mexican governors refuse to set foot on Arizona soil. SB 1070 author Russell Pearce, a lawmaker formerly dismissed by many as an extremist, is poised to become president of the state Senate.

“The anger is palpable and measurable by candidates for office,” said Stan Barnes, a former Republican state senator and veteran lobbyist. “Anyone who wants to hold elected office here will first be questioned on it.”

The state captured the national spotlight in April, when Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed the law, which requires police to determine the status of anyone they lawfully stop and also suspect is an illegal immigrant. It also made it a state crime to lack immigration papers.

Brewer said it was necessary to protect residents against drug cartels that smuggle immigrants across Arizona’s southern border. Civil rights groups alleged the law would lead to wide-scale racial profiling.

SB 1070 polls well in Arizona, winning approval ratings between 55% and 70%. It has garnered majority support in national polls too, and legislators in more than 20 states have vowed to introduce versions.

But SB 1070 wasn’t Arizona’s first legislative assault on illegal immigration. Since 2004, Arizona legislators have passed measures that restricted illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, made English the official language and dissolved any business that repeatedly hired illegal immigrants.

At the same time, the Republican Party in Arizona has moved to the right on all sorts of issues. Susan Gerard, a former GOP state senator who also worked for former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, was one of more than a dozen Republican moderates in the Legislature at the start of the decade. Now, she said, there are none.

“The Republican Party in Arizona, and really throughout the country, has taken giant leaps to the right,” Gerard said.

About 8% of Arizona’s population is made up of illegal immigrants, nearly all from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. (Thirty percent of state residents are Latino.) Though the growth of that population has slowed somewhat in the last few years, the center estimates that about 500,000 illegal immigrants live in the state, up from about 90,000 in 1990.

The population increased after the federal government stepped up enforcement along the California border, slowing illegal crossings with more agents and a massive fence. That pushed traffic east — to the mountains and deserts of Arizona.

The boom in construction in Arizona also brought illegal immigrants, changing the makeup of cities and creating unease among longtime residents.

Smith, the mayor of Mesa, said the mostly conservative residents in his city started to express frustration with the number of day laborers, with the amount of Spanish being spoken and with immigrants working jobs traditionally held by high school students at fast-food restaurants and elsewhere.

“You have whole neighborhoods that have transitioned into primarily Hispanic,” Smith said. “Whether right or wrong, people saw things were changing.”

There is also widespread fear of crime coming to the state from Mexico, especially as a drug war rages to the south. Arizona has actually become safer since illegal immigrants started streaming in in the late 1990s. Phoenix is one of the safest cities in the nation, and crime has not increased along the border either.

Still, there has been a series of unnerving incidents not reflected in the statistics — gun battles between drug cartels on the interstates, “drop houses” in Phoenix where traffickers hold undocumented migrants for ransom and, in March, the slaying of rancher Robert Krentz on his property in southern Arizona. Footprints from the scene led across the border to Mexico.

The smuggling-related incidents coincided with an economic decline that fueled anger among native-born Arizonans. “Historically, illegal immigration always comes up as an issue when the economy starts to tank,” said Lisa Magana, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

But one factor influencing the state in profound ways was President Obama’s decision to name Napolitano his secretary of Homeland Security.

Barnes, the Republican lobbyist, said the popular Democratic governor had “a dampening effect on activism on illegal immigration issues.” But in January 2009, Brewer, who had been secretary of state, succeeded Napolitano.

“If Janet Napolitano were still governor, 1070 would not be law,” Barnes said. “Because she’s not governor and Jan Brewer is governor, 1070 is law, and now the earthquake is being felt nationwide and worldwide.”

Indeed, Pearce, who could not be reached for comment, had pushed measures similar to SB 1070 as far back as 2004. Napolitano vetoed those efforts.

Another lawmaker’s bills, designed to ban a Mexican American studies program in the Tucson school system, had also failed. But this year Brewer signed such a bill into law.

Pearce, meanwhile, is proposing more legislation — to prevent the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants from becoming citizens and checking the immigration status of parents of children in public schools.