When pro-immigration demonstrators marched in scores of American cities this week, their hope was to influence the federal immigration debate. But the rallies could sway state elections and provide a tipping point for nearly 400 immigration measures pending in statehouses across the country.
In Arizona, legislators voted Wednesday to make illegal immigration a violation of the state's trespassing laws; the bill awaits the signature of Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). In Connecticut, Monday's marches sparked a sharp debate in a gubernatorial primary.
Pro-immigration lawmakers in New York and Arizona said the demonstrations would bolster the political power of Hispanics. Their prediction was countered by conservative legislators who said the marches would encourage voters to support tighter immigration measures.
In Colorado, the reaction was almost immediate. On April 10 — the same day as most of the marches — a conservative caucus of state legislators called on President Bush to declare a national state of emergency to "stop all illegal infiltration."
"We have been shocked by the blatant, coordinated and anti-American demonstrations on behalf of illegal aliens throughout the country, including the City of Denver, with little or no serious action on the part of the Federal Government," the caucus said in a letter to the White House.
Rep. David Schultheis (R), one of the eight state lawmakers to sign it, said he hoped the rallies would compel statehouse leaders to consider controlling illegal immigration through local police involvement and tougher citizenship checks by employers.
He also said he expected the rallies to awaken the average Colorado voter to the dangers of illegal immigration. "It is absolutely going have an effect in November. No question. It's going to be the number one issue in the state," Schultheis said.
Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a state representative from New York, also saw an immediate result from the marches. For weeks, the Brooklyn Democrat had been trying without luck to convince his colleagues to pass a resolution condemning a U.S. House immigration bill, which would tighten border security and make felons of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Ortiz's fortune changed Monday when the Assembly leadership called on him to push the resolution forward. It passed a day later, and Ortiz said New York now stands as the only state to formally oppose the U.S. House bill. The U.S. Senate recessed for Easter without passing its more moderate version of the legislation.
"Everyone who is running for re-election is keeping their eyes and minds on what is happening. They won't take the Hispanic community for granted," said Ortiz, who also serves as the president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. In Arizona, state Rep. Steve Gallardo (D) said he hopes the marches would convince the state's leaders to turn back its policies against illegal immigrants. "If you change the public perception, you can change the minds of elected leaders," he said.
Last year, the Arizona barred public spending on migrant work centers and gave judges the latitude to lengthen felony sentences of convicts who also violated immigration law. This year, state lawmakers are considering boostintg the state's border security and giving local police the power to arrest illegal immigrants.
But Gallardo said he believes the marches this week could trigger a political response among Hispanic voters similar to the mobilization of California's Hispanic population following the approval of Proposition 187 in 1994.
The ballot initiative, later thrown out in court, sought to eliminate social services for illegal immigrants, including public schooling for children. Its passage, championed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R), backfired and spurred Hispanic voters to push the GOP out of power until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) reclaimed the governor's seat in 2003.
Gallardo said he saw the same enthusiasm Monday on the streets of his hometown of Phoenix. Protesters stood in long lines to register to vote, and organizers emphasized the need to transfer the demonstration's energy into power at the polling booth.
"For the first time, we are looking at the human aspect of illegal immigration. We are no longer looking at statistics. We are no longer looking at numbers. We are looking at faces. These are the faces of Arizona, the face of America," Gallardo said.
The issue of illegal immigration is expected to be a major factor in a number of state elections, and at least influence many more, said one elections analyst. Tim Storey, who tracks elections for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the issue of will be most visible in states where there are immigration-related ballot initiatives.
"There is little doubt this is going to be a major issue where it's on the ballot. Whether this issue has the staying power to affect down-the-ticket elections, well that's a much tougher question. But it doesn't appear to be ebbing anytime soon," Storey said.
In Arizona, voters will decide this fall whether to change the state constitution to deny bail to illegal immigrants arrested for serious crimes. In California and Colorado, conservative activists are working to qualify ballot initiatives that would bar illegal immigrants from accessing social programs.