One of the more interesting developments in the national immigration debate is the retreat of anti-immigrant politics in Arizona, a state which helped bring it to the nation. A combination of real improvements along the border, a series of high-profile legal and political defeats, and a rallying of business and community leaders against the social and economic costs of anti-immigrant politics is ushering in a new, post-SB1070 era in Arizona. As House Republicans in recent days have committed to SB1070 style anti-immigrant politics, it would be wise for them to pay attention to what has happened in Arizona in recent years:
Supreme Court Once Again Strikes Down Arizona Law: In 2010, Arizona passed SB1070, creating copy cat laws all over the country. The Obama Administration sued Arizona and took the case to the Supreme Court. The Court struck down most of SB1070, curtailing the rise of state passed immigration laws. This week a conservative Supreme Court struck down another Arizona law which came from the same style of SB1070 politics. For the second consecutive year a conservative Supreme Court has handed Arizona’s anti-immigrant leaders a significant legal defeat.
The Legislative Architect of SB1070 was Recalled, and is Now Out of Politics: In 2010 Russell Pearce, the then-majority leader of the state Senate pushed SB1070 through the state legislature. In 2011, a coalition which included Republican business leaders became alarmed by the damage to the state’s reputation. It backed a moderate GOP candidate, who defeated the sitting majority leader in a recall election. A year later, Pearce ran in a newly-redrawn district and was handily defeated in a primary by a moderate Republican candidate. Embracing virulent anti-immigrant politics ended the political career of Russell Pearce.
Arizona Senators are Now Leaders on Immigration Reform: The weakening of the SB1070 forces has given Arizona’s Senators McCain and Flake the ability to be among immigration reforms most important champions. Senator McCain now defends progress made on the southwest border, recently taking to the Senate floor to note: “I have been on the border in Arizona for the last 30 years, to somehow say there have not been significant advancements in border security defies the facts.” These kinds of statements were hard to imagine in the build “the dang fence” frenzy of 2010.
Democrats are Making Significant Political Gains: Despite the reputation of the state as a conservative bastion, the Congressional boundaries have produced a Congressional delegation that is 5-4 Democratic, and is likely to stay so for years. In 2011, Tucson and Phoenix both elected Democratic mayors, the first time these cities have had Democrats in some time. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has become an important opponent to local Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and is among the most spirited advocates for comprehensive immigration reform in the country.
Arizona State legislature rejects Anti-Immigration Laws: After years of legislative sessions dominated by anti-immigrant/SB1070 style politics, this year’s session has seen very little of this type of legislation, and none have passed. One of SB1070’s most important leaders, and one of President Obama’s most virulent critics, Governor Jan Brewer, recently accepted the new health care law’s Medicaid provisions, something rejected by most other Republican governors in the country and put her on the receiving end of scorn from the state’s Republican Party. These new provisions will disproportionately help low income Hispanic residents of the state. Brewer’s actions would have been unthinkable at the height of the anti-immigrant political movement. Today they are further signs of the weakening hold that this movement has on Republican lawmakers in Arizona.
Arizona’s Republican Party, once the nation’s greatest champion of anti-immigrant politics, has largely moved on to other matters, not wanting to absorb the costs and losses they were suffering. The state’s two most important Republican politicians have become important leaders of a new wave of comprehensive immigration reform advocacy. Democrats have made significant gains in the state in recent years, bringing Arizona much closer to being a purple state than ever before.
As someone who grew up in Arizona, I have watched the weakening of SB1070 style politics among the Arizona Republicans with both amazement and joy. House Republicans ignore their journey at their own peril.
Kristian Ramos is the Policy Director of the 21st Century Border Initiative at NDN and The New Policy Institute.