Arizona Immigration Law: Why the Republicans are Retreating

In a stunning turnaround, Arizona Republicans killed 5 of the state's notorious immigration bills. Terry Greene Sterling obtains a report showing deportations pummeling the local economy.

A protest outside the Arizona capitol building on March 17 as the state senate debated the latest immigration bills. (Credit: AP Photo)

In a surprise St. Patrick’s Day coup, conservative Republican senators in Arizona slapped down five harsh immigration bills that aimed to deny state birth certificates to babies born to unauthorized immigrants, turn school teachers and hospital workers into immigration enforcers, prohibit undocumented immigrants from attending college, and criminalize them for driving.

The roundly defeated measures signal that Arizona is ticking slightly towards the right-center. And, like many states that have rejected immigration measures this year, is beginning to recognize that immigration-crackdown laws can derail already fragile economic recoveries.

An embargoed report obtained by The Daily Beast details how deporting all of Arizona’s unauthorized immigrants would spell disaster for the already stressed economy. Not only would 17 percent of jobs vanish statewide, the liberal Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center say, but ousting all of Arizona’s undocumented migrants could “shrink the state economy by $48.8 billion.”

Even so, ridding Arizona of its 400,000 or so “illegals” has long been the stated goal of Russell Pearce, the temperamental Tea Partier with a reputation for bullying who ascended to the presidency of the state senate after sponsoring SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law that makes it a crime for unauthorized migrants to set foot in the Grand Canyon State. (Parts of the law have been temporarily stayed by a federal judge.)

The passage of SB 1070 last spring sparked a successful wave of ongoing boycotts against the state, says boycott organizer and former Arizona senate minority leader Alfredo Gutierrez. The success of the boycotts, he says, are partly due to the simple fact that it was an easy sell -- Americans were “repulsed by the orgy of hate” in his home state. He notes that the state’s hospitality industry took a documented $150 million hit in cancelled convention and hotel reservations.

“I don’t think this was an epiphany of justice and understanding,” Gutierrez says of the senate trouncing of the five bills favored by Pearce and immigration hardliners, “this was about economic impact.”

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the negative effects of the Latino-led boycott in a letter on its website yesterday. And in a St. Pat’s Day letter to Pearce, Arizona’s biggest employers said they’d felt the boycott sting, and they’d had enough.

“I don’t think this was an epiphany of justice and understanding, this was about economic impact.”

“Last year, boycotts were called against our state’s business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs. Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding …Sales outside of the state declined…It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image,” the letter says.

Among the local business superstars who urged Pearce to quit passing damaging immigration laws and let the feds handle immigration reform was Robert Delgado, president and CEO of Hensley Beverage Company, owned largely by Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain. Latinos boycotted Budweiser beer, which is distributed by the Hensley outfit, shortly after McCain morphed from immigration reformer to immigration hardliner in order to defeat J.D. Hayworth in a hard-fought primary election. McCain would not condemn SB 1070.

Pearce, who didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment for this story, disregarded the St. Patrick’s Day letter on Thursday, saying, “I stand on the side of citizens, not a bunch of businessmen who write me a letter.”

State Sen. John McComish, a self-described “traditional conservative Republican” is shaping up to be Pearce’s nemesis. McComish says he’s not sorry he voted for SB 1070 because he claims it “really did something to stop illegal immigration.” Still, he allows that he’s sorry for the “negative ramifications” SB 1070 had on Arizona’s economy. He views the most recent slew of proposed immigration laws as “sound and fury” and a “waste of time and energy” that would not stop illegal immigration.

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Pearce’s power in the senate, says McComish, has been “diminished” in the last weeks. First, a proposed law promoting a Pearce-favored “cockamamie scheme” to empower Arizona lawmakers to decide which federal laws should be followed in Arizona was roundly defeated on the senate floor. Next, Pearce’s five pet immigration-crackdown bills were defeated. Still, says McComish, that “doesn’t signal the end of Russell’s reign.”

Pearce, who’s facing a possible recall and whose political and personal life has been clouded with controversy, is reportedly politicking busily this weekend, calling in favors. There’s the remote possibility he could try to resurrect his favorite immigration crackdown bills on Monday, if an allied senator seeks a revote. Or, one of the measures might resurface as an appendage to an unrelated law. There’s one last option, and it, too, is remote. Pearce might suggest taking the failed laws to the voters on a referendum, but such a move would require senate approval.

And the senate, pressured by businesses, is in no mood to relent.

Todd Landfried, a lobbyist and spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, says senators have likely killed the laws this year and the “bloom is off the rose.” But he warns that with Russell Pearce in office, harsh immigration bills “are not dead forever.”

And Pearce hasn’t lost all his support. During the St. Patrick’s Day senate vote, a gun-toting Pearce supporter, Sen. Lori Klein, who did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story, read a letter purportedly from a school substitute teacher that condemned Mexican students as “gangsters.”

Latino groups in Arizona remain guardedly optimistic that Pearce has been at least temporarily stopped. “Arizona is finally back on track,” Raquel Teran, of the activist group Promise Arizona, said on Thursday. “Thank you to all the senators who demonstrated courage today by voting against measures that would divide our community and devastate our economy."

But Gutierrez, the boycott organizer, warns those who celebrate the trounced crackdown bills that Pearce “controls the agenda in the Senate, and he’s highly influential…and he hates Mexicans.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.