Stateline Story

Lawmaker Fights Immigrant 'Invasion'

  • September 01, 2005
  • By Mark K. Matthews

MESA, Ariz. -- Shades on, Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce saddles up and turns the key to his white pickup truck. It's almost rush hour, and the Republican lawmaker plans to cruise his hometown to scout the "illegal alien invasion."                                                                                                      

At first the search turns up nothing. The temperature is over 100 degrees, and the sandy streets of Mesa are almost deserted. Then Pearce turns a corner and spots four men standing on the curb. 

"Illegals," Pearce says as he drives by. To the former sheriff's deputy, these four men represent the looming dangers of a lenient attitude toward immigration. At stake, he says, is nothing less than the "destruction of America" through imported violence and poverty. 

Pearce is the spearhead of a political movement to crack down on the estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants living in the state. His efforts as a lawmaker have helped give Arizona the toughest statutes nationally against illegal immigrants and raised speculation about a run at the governor's office in 2006 against incumbent Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).

"Immigration is a federal responsibility. But once they (illegal immigrants) cross the border, it is our schools, our communities, our health care that is being destroyed," said Pearce, 58, who warns of rising crime rates and depleted state budgets.  

Pearce's hardened attitude has triggered some statewide resentment. He has been called xenophobic or worse. On the same day Pearce gave his tour of Mesa, a local Spanish-language newspaper published his photo under the headline: " Exigen aplicar ley racista " or "They demand to apply racist law."

It was a reference to a controversial ballot initiative -- Proposition 200 -- championed by Pearce and passed by voters in November to bar social services to illegal immigrants.

The three-term lawmaker also pitched at least 10 bills this year, including measures to give local police the power to arrest suspected illegal immigrants, encourage deportation and make English the state's official language.

He and his conservative allies landed a number of measures on the governor's desk, where several were vetoed. But they scored enough successes this session to cut off public funding to work centers heavily used by migrants and to add penalties for immigrants who are arrested.

"People have been marching, calling me a bigot, a racist. But all this is about is enforcing the law," said Pearce, who lost half of his right ring finger in 1977 when a teenager -- described as a Mexican male in police reports -- grabbed Pearce's service pistol as he was trying to make an arrest for underage drinking. The shot also punctured Pearce's chest.

The 23-year retired veteran of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office recovered from that shooting and even jokes about it now, but another shooting draws a more somber tone from the one-time chief deputy.

In December 2004, one of Pearce's five children, an Arizona sheriff's deputy, was shot by an illegal immigrant during an arrest on the same day the father was in Washington, D.C., to speak against illegal immigration.  

The son is recovering, but Pearce says it was a scary time for the family. The shooting only encouraged the state lawmaker to take on a greater role in the immigration issue, says one of Pearce's brothers.

"Where many people would say it was time to take a back seat, that is not the way with him," said Lester Pearce, who also served in the Arizona Legislature.

Pearce dismisses any suggestion that his family's trauma has skewed his politics.

But Alexis Mazón, who fought against Proposition 200, said Pearce's law enforcement background has given him "this approach of criminalizing people of color." Kat Rodriguez, an organizer with the progressive Coalición de Derechos Humanos ( The Human Rights Coalition), described both Pearce and his policies as "mean-spirited."

Pearce said he has "many, many Mexican friends" and Hispanic supporters who are evidence that his policies are not motivated by racism.

Pearce told Stateline.org he hasn't ruled out the possibility of running for governor. He said he plans to keep pushing immigration to the front burner of state politics, already aiming to get two more initiatives on the 2006 ballot: one to make English the official language and another to give local police the power to arrest illegal immigrants.

He's also pitched the idea of building a fence between Arizona and Mexico.

That would keep immigration alive as an issue when Napolitano is slated to seek re-election next year. Already facing GOP charges that she's soft on immigration, Napolitano stepped out more forcefully against violence and illegal crossings along the border by declaring a state of emergency in August.   

"What Proposition 200 has done, politically, is empower the people who brought it forward," says state Rep. Robert Meza (D), who opposed Pearce on a number of measures. "It's pretty savvy. People are easily swayed by this."

Pearce is no stranger to political controversy. He first won election to the Legislature in 2000 soon after being fired as director of the state's Motor Vehicle Division, which was accused of attempting to change a woman's driving record. He denies any involvement and says his firing was "simply a political game" orchestrated by a new governor.

A lifelong resident of Mesa, where he grew up the eighth of 13 children in a blended family, Pearce lives in a modest ranch house, prays before he eats and avoids R-rated movies because of the sex and violence. He says he's intent on taking back his hometown, now nicknamed "Mesaico."

"It's not the Mesa I was raised in," he says. "They have turned it into a Third World country."

Tags: Immigration