Arizona's Immigration Shift

Arizona's Immigration Shift

By Clint Bolick - March 11, 2013

Nothing better exemplifies the rapidly changing political terrain over immigration than Arizona's emerging role as a leader for reform.

For the past decade, Arizona led the nation in efforts to thwart illegal immigration, passing a ballot measure limiting benefits to illegal immigrants in 2004, adopting employer sanctions in 2007 and enacting S.B. 1070 in 2010. Immigration eclipsed all other issues and became a litmus test for Republican primary candidates. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County and State Sen. Russell Pearce became national celebrities for their hard-line stands.

Any Republican caught uttering the words "comprehensive immigration reform" was branded a "pro-amnesty" traitor by the party's rank and file. When Sen. John McCain was challenged from the right in the 2010 primary after leading a failed immigration reform effort, he retreated to a "secure the border first" position in which most Arizona Republicans have sought refuge. Sen. Jeff Flake, elected last year, adopted the same approach against a conservative primary challenger despite having built a more moderate record during his years as a congressman.

Yet Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake now are among the leading advocates of comprehensive immigration reform, constituting one-quarter of the Senate's "Gang of Eight" that is trying to forge a bipartisan reform consensus. Arizona's recent past would suggest that they are courting political suicide. The fact that both senators are taking the risk illustrates how suddenly and significantly the immigration debate has changed in Arizona.

The shift began when Mr. Pearce, the author of S.B. 1070, was successfully recalled less than a year after he became state Senate President in 2011. Mr. Pearce attributed his loss to the fact that he faced a single challenger, a moderate Republican who was elected with Democratic support. But when Mr. Pearce sought his old seat in 2012, he was soundly defeated in the Republican primary by a fellow conservative whose main difference with Mr. Pearce was over immigration.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Arpaio eked out a re-election victory with 50.7 percent of the vote, despite dumping $7 million into the county-wide campaign and outspending his little-known Democratic opponent by more than 15 to 1.

Mr. Pearce's loss and Mr. Arpaio's close call made it possible for Republicans to take a more moderate stand on immigration. The growing strength of Hispanic voters made it imperative.

Between 2008 and 2012, fueled largely by hostile immigration policies, Hispanic voter registration increased by 40 percent and voter turnout by 23 percent. Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona came within five points of defeating Mr. Flake for the Senate. Meanwhile, Democrats won all three of the competitive congressional races, taking a 5-4 majority in the House delegation.

Leading Republicans, including conservative Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, are reaching across the aisle to find common ground on immigration reform at the grassroots level. Meanwhile, Arizona Republicans for the first time in many years elected a state party chairman who did not campaign on a hard-line immigration platform.

Some remain strident on the issue. In a broadside against the Gang of Eight approach, the House Republicans (Trent Franks, Paul Gosar, David Schweikert, and Matt Salmon) wrote, "Only after first securing our borders can we begin to contemplate discussions of additional immigration reform."

But the view of an increasing number of Arizonan Republicans is that the converse is true—comprehensive immigration reform is necessary in order to reduce the incentive to cross the border illegally. The fact that such an insight seems to be taking hold in Arizona, of all places, should give rise to optimism that long-overdue national immigration reform may well be within reach. 

Clint Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and co-author (with former Gov. Jeb Bush) of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution (Simon & Schuster/Threshold, 2013).

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2013. It is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution

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