Arizona Lashes Out at Illegal Immigration

Arizona is a state in turmoil, inundated by at least a half million illegal immigrants and torn apart by ways to handle these new residents.

Homemade street signs tell day laborers to keep moving. State politicians who want to curtail illegal immigration are riding a wave of public support. And radio call-in shows -- never a bastion of civility -- debate the issue almost daily, in both English and Español.

Public discontent with the situation has boiled over into state policy, leading voters and lawmakers to pass some of the most hardline anti-illegal immigrant laws in the country.

"It brings out the worst in a lot of us," said state Rep. Steve Gallardo (D).

In May, Hispanic workers staged a one-day strike to protest the growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Hispanic leaders are calling for a nationwide boycott of Arizona, a tactic employed by civil rights groups more than a decade ago after the state refused to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday.

That boycott cost Arizona the chance to host the 1993 Super Bowl.

This is not a new conflict. Tensions have built for years over the influx of undocumented workers to this desert state, now the busiest illegal gateway on the Mexican border.

Federal border officials arrested nearly 500,000 people trying to enter the state between last October and July. In April, the "Minuteman Project," a self-appointed militia, began patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border. And in mid-August, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) took the unusual step of declaring a state of emergency. The move frees up government money to boost law enforcement along the border.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, which like Stateline.org is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona has more than quadrupled since 1996 -- from 115,000 then to about 500,000 now. By comparison, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States roughly doubled, jumping from about 5 million in 1996 to about 11 million today.

The upsurge of illegal immigrants in Arizona -- on top of an economic boom that caused the state's population to increase more than 12 percent to almost 6 million since 2000 -- is severely straining prisons, schools, hospitals and law enforcement.

Some experts believe the conflict offers a glimpse into the future of American politics. Politicians in at least 11 states are pushing ballot initiative proposals similar to Arizona's ban on state services, and anti-illegal immigration measures increasingly are dividing statehouses from North Carolina to California.

Arizona's turning point came last November when it became the first state since California in 1994 to adopt a ballot initiative, Proposition 200, that barred social services to illegal immigrants.

The measure, which passed with 55.6 percent of the vote despite opposition from both Democratic and Republican leaders, also makes it a crime for public employees to fail to report undocumented immigrants seeking benefits, and requires proof of citizenship to register to vote.

"(Illegal immigrants) can't come to America and get free stuff. It's just wrong. You've got to take their benefits away," said Rep. Russell Pearce (R), who led the Prop 200 drive.

Unlike California's initiative, Arizona's Prop 200 has held up in court. In early August, a federal appeals court rejected a lawsuit aimed at overturning it. Further legal action is expected.

Prop 200 has done little to change the lives of illegal immigrants, who cannot legally vote anyway and were eligible only for limited benefits. But its passage galvanized conservative state lawmakers to introduce additional punitive measures during this year's session of the Legislature.

Several measures passed, were signed into law by the governor and went into effect Aug. 12.

Arizona police officers, as well as federal border patrol officers, now can arrest people suspected of smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. They also cam seize vehicles driven by illegal immigrants that are involved in an accident.

State judges can lengthen a felony sentence if the person convicted has violated federal immigration law, and city and county officials are barred from spending on migrant work centers, which illegal immigrants often use to find employment.

Napolitano vetoed proposals to designate English as the official state language and build a prison in Mexico for illegal immigrants.

In 2006, Arizona voters will consider changing the state Constitution to deny bail to illegal immigrants arrested for serious crimes. GOP lawmakers are considering going around Napolitano to revive the English-only proposal and put it on the ballot, too, as well as another initiative that would give local police the power to arrest illegal immigrants.

Carlos Morales, who illegally immigrated from Mexico about 18 months ago, said in an interview at a work center in northern Phoenix that the law that ends funding to work centers is typical of politics in the aftermath of Prop 200.

"After Proposition 200, it seems everything is against the migrant. It's racist. Everything seems to be blamed on the migrant," Morales said in Spanish through a translator.

Although undocumented workers help provide labor for Arizona's booming construction business, they also impose costs. Jim Dickson, who runs a hospital five miles from the Mexican border, says emergency room care for illegal immigrants has risen from $30,000 to more than $350,000 in only four years.

"We're in a war down here to preserve the health system," Dickson told Stateline.org.

Law enforcement officials and lawmakers such as Pearce also contend that crime follows illegal immigrants across the border. The state prison system spent $77 million last year detaining more than 4,000 illegal immigrants.

Compounding the tension, Arizona residents can't even agree on what to call those who illegally cross the border; the gamut runs from the conservative label "illegal aliens" to the liberal "undocumented workers."

To some, much of the conflict is ethnic: Hispanics in 2003 comprised over 27 percent of Arizona's population. Of the 449,000 new residents added between 2000 and 2003, more than 53 percent were Hispanic. Census figures do not differentiate between legal and illegal residents.

State Sen. Karen Johnson (R) sees a cultural struggle, too. "The culture of the United States is being destroyed," she said. "The illegals don't want to be a part of American culture. They want to bring their Mexican-Hispanic culture here."

As the number of Hispanics living in the state has grown, so has the number of Hispanic state legislators, who now hold 14 of the 90 seats in the Statehouse.

Rodolfo Espino of Arizona State University, who specializes in political behavior and minority politics, said this increased political power may explain some of the current anti-immigration sentiment in Arizona. The white establishment is in danger of losing control, he said.

But the sentiment driving Arizona's backlash can be found even within the Hispanic community. Prop 200 exit polls showed that 47 percent of Hispanics who voted supported the measure.

Rita Montanez, a mother of three who lives in Mesa, Ariz., worries about the effects of illegal immigration on her ability to get health care.

"I'm Mexican-American, and I just believe we are overstretched because of all the immigration," Montanez said. She added that "closing the border" might be the only solution to the problem.

Tags: Immigration