Tina McClendon was finally surrounded by her own people.
The 39-year-old postal worker stood in a minor league baseball stadium here last week with thousands of others who backed Arizona’s new immigration law.
McClendon sported a T-shirt that read “Arizona: Doing the Job the Feds Won’t Do!” It’s one of four similarly-themed shirts she wears regularly. Her sartorial choices earn her frequent compliments from strangers — not a surprise, as polls consistently show large majorities backing the state’s crackdown against illegal immigration.
But McClendon says she also gets dirty looks from Latino neighbors and believes her stance has led people to leave trash on her car. “So many legal citizens are scared to come out,” she said. “They’re afraid to speak up.”
Earlier that day, tens of thousands of protesters denouncing the law filled the streets of Phoenix. But the rally McClendon attended couldn’t even fill the 9,873-seat stadium. It’s a dynamic that’s persisted ever since April, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law.
The onslaught of criticism through boycotts, protests and lawsuits has frustrated many of the law’s backers, who contend its broad support in polls — ranging from 51% to 70% depending on how the statute is described and who is surveyed — shows it is the people’s will
The law makes it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to determine the status of people they stop and also suspect are in the country illegally.
Backers of the law hope a rally planned for Saturday in Phoenix will draw foes of illegal immigration from around the country. Another Phoenix rally is scheduled for June 12.
“Mass public displays are a good way of sending a message to Washington, D.C.,” said Daniel Smeriglio, a Pennsylvania activist who organized Saturday’s rally. “The other side is trying to send their message out the same way we are.”
Despite fewer events and lower turnout from the law’s backers, it appears that their message is being heard more loudly nationwide than that of SB 1070’s foes, who support reform that allows illegal immigrants who obey the law to become legal residents.
Comprehensive immigration reform stalled in 2006 despite support from both political parties. Its onetime prime advocate, Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, who is being challenged in the Republican primary, has now taken a hard-line stance and disavowed his prior bill.
Democrats in the Senate last month outlined a possible immigration bill that is significantly more restrictive than what was proposed in 2006, and most observers agree it’s unlikely to pass this year.
Immigrant rights advocates, such as Shuya Ohno of the Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., can cite polls showing strong support for their critique of the law. Many of the polls that show as much as 70% support of SB 1070 also show that majorities of Americans believe it will cause racial profiling — a contention of immigrant groups. Other polls show even greater margins support allowing law-abiding illegal immigrants to become citizens.
“People are just fed up and frustrated and they want something done,” Ohno said. “The idea that people who are for the bill are against immigrants is just wrong.”
The law’s supporters say people favor the bill because it’s common sense. And common-sense measures don’t tend to draw big crowds.
“Why should I protest [in support of] a law that says you can’t go over the speed limit?” said former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is scheduled to speak in Phoenix on Saturday. The conservative Republican often clashed with his party’s leadership over illegal immigration. Business and religious groups tend to support a path to citizenship for illegal workers, while the movement opposing legalization has few large groups or donors to help it.
“The organizational entities out there were against our position,” Tancredo said. “But what I used to tell our leadership is we have the American people, [even if] they aren’t going to be out on the streets.”
On the evening of May 29, protesters were in Diablo Stadium, if not in the streets, listening to talk radio hosts and “tea party” activists excoriate illegal immigrants and praise SB 1070 supporters. “This is wonderful, it’s very inspiring,” said Cyndi Moulton, 64, a retired nurse and tea party member. “It makes many, many people understand they are not alone.”
Activists and entrepreneurs staffed several tents signing up tea party members, selling politically themed shirts reading " Karl Marx was not a Founding Father” or “Chairman Maobama.” The crowd was mostly white, but the speakers included several Latinos and African Americans who decried allegations that backers of the law are racist.
The much larger crowd in central Phoenix was on the minds of many. “Those guys got bused in with our tax dollars,” said David Youmans, a trucker from Casa Grande, Ariz. “ACORN, unions, our tax dollars. All these people here paid their own damn money to get here.”
The most eagerly anticipated speaker of the night, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, appeared with actor Lou Ferrigno, best known for playing the Incredible Hulk in the 1970s television series. Arpaio told the crowd that their activism was what had stopped immigration reform in 2006.
“You’re the secret weapon, believe me,” Arpaio said. “When you talk, the politicians listen.”