At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats have rebooted the immigration debate. They have placed an actual bill on the table. And ironically, the fate of the legislation may rest in the hands of a Senate Democrat who talks, acts, thinks, and often votes like a Republican.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is positioned, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), to be a shot-caller in a 50-50 Senate. Whether the Democrats’ new immigration bill rises or falls will have a lot to do with how Arizona’s senior senator feels about it.
That’s bad news for immigrants, and those who care about them. Latinos in Arizona don’t trust her or see her as a true ally who is reliable in a crisis. Sinema has been cagey—or worse—on immigration issues for years, dating back to her time in the Arizona state legislature.
It’s not personal. It’s politics. It’s not that she hates immigrants. It’s more like she doesn’t give them a thought, or the time of day. She certainly doesn’t let the matter of what happens to them factor into her political calculus of how to climb the ladder and go from one job to the next.
This month, Sinema voted to deny stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants, many of whom are toiling during the COVID-19 lockdown as “essential workers” often in dangerous conditions. These folks pay taxes, and you can bet they would spend any stimulus money they got by pumping it into the economy. That’s the idea, right?
Still, Sinema probably thinks she did the right thing politically with that vote. Immigrant bashing is still popular back home in Arizona. She knows that, because she is pure politics. She is good at this game.
Sinema glided quickly through brief stints in the Arizona House of Representatives, Arizona State Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives—all in just 16 years—to find herself serving as the senior U.S. Senator from Arizona at only 44 years old.
Besides a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, Sinema has a law degree and a PhD from Arizona State University. She’s a crafty lawyer who always looks out for her chief client: herself. She flummoxes Latino lefties in Arizona, many of whom view her as erratic, unreliable, and not likely to stick her neck out for them. Yet she takes advantage of whatever Latino support she can scrape together, as long as she doesn’t have to work too hard for it.
I’ve followed Sinema’s political career since 2010, when she served in the Arizona House of Representatives. That’s the year that Republican lawmakers passed SB 1070, a blatantly racist immigration bill that required local and state law enforcement officers to profile Latinos and enforce federal immigration law.
In response, the Democratic minority in the Arizona legislature did precious little. For the most part, white Democrats were so terrified of the mob that they hid under their desks and waited for the dust storm to pass them by.
This includes Sinema. Apparently, to her, being in the center means being missing in action at moments of moral crisis. I paid close attention to the story of SB 1070. I wrote 30 columns about the law. During the summer of 2010, I spent a week in Phoenix—in the 1990s, I had been a columnist for The Arizona Republic—covering the law’s implementation for cnn.com. I spoke to activists, immigrants, cops, local officials, and state lawmakers. I never heard Sinema’s name. Anywhere. Not from anyone.
In fact, I didn’t hear her name until a year later, in 2011. A group called “Citizens for a Better Arizona” launched an effort to recall Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce. He was the author of SB 1070, and he was also the iron-fisted president of the Arizona State Senate. Pearce was eventually recalled in November 2011.
Soon thereafter, according to the Phoenix New Times, at a meeting of the local chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, Ms. Sinema, who was by then an Arizona state senator, was asked by Latina activist Lilia Alvarez why she had turned away backers of the effort to recall Pearce when they asked her for support.
Sinema gave a bizarre answer that reflected the cozy nature of Arizona politics. As Alvarez put it to the New Times: “She said pretty unapologetically, ‘Russell Pearce is my boss, and that's why I couldn't get involved.’ People in the crowd were just wide-eyed.”
As it made the rounds, the comment kicked up a dust storm. According to the Huffington Post, Sinema spokesman Rodd McLeod insisted that the Democrat did support the Pearce recall—only privately. Sinema later doubled down on her claim that as senate president, Pearce was the “boss” of the institution.
A Democrat refusing to publicly challenge a Republican because she considers him the boss? What the hell? And wait—I buried the lead. Did I mention that Pearce was a racist son-of-a-bitch who compared immigrants to insects and had the temerity to demand that Mexican Americans who had lived in Arizona for seven generations prove their U.S. citizenship?
A few years later, Sinema told the NBC affiliate in Phoenix that she liked the idea of Pearce—a fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—running for Congress because, she said: “I love Russell. We get along very well.”
None of these comments have endeared Sinema to Arizona Latinos. They still vote for her, as they do all Democrats. Brand loyalty counts for a lot. But they don’t see her as being in their corner.
Some point to her record in Congress. She supported Kate’s Law, which sprang from the hysteria over so-called sanctuary cities and would have extended prison sentences for undocumented immigrants who re-enter the country after being deported. She voted for the SAFE Act, which made it more difficult for refugees to enter the United States. And she opposed abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Some years ago, I tried to talk to Sinema about her stances on immigration, many of which seem to establish her credentials as a conservative. At one point during the interview, in response to a question she didn’t like, Sinema called me combative—and then hung up.
Sinema is about to get another crack at the immigration issue, as lawmakers in Congress bite into the new Democratic bill.
With the Senate split the way it is, what happens to this bill will depend a great deal on Sinema. She can’t afford to get this one wrong.
Unfortunately, judging from her record, when it comes to immigration “wrong” is usually her starting point.