Arid, sun-baked and conservative -- and the nation's busiest and bloodiest border corridor for human and drug smugglers -- Arizona has gone on the attack, coming up with the most sweeping and harshest anti-illegal immigration
legislation in the land, giving state officials new powers to stop and arrest people they suspect are undocumented immigrants.
Or to put it crudely, it's now open season on Latinos in Arizona.
Since Senate Bill 1070 was passed by the heavily Republican legislature on Monday, immigration-reform advocates across the nation have mounted a loud campaign to press Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, to veto the bill. The governor's office received more than 15,000 calls and letters
, most from out-of-state opponents who live far from the bloody Arizona-Mexico border. Poster-carrying demonstrators picketed the State House in Phoenix, and editorials across the country denounced the legislation as appalling, unfair, unconstitutional and, in a phrase in a New York Times editorial
, "mean-spirited." She signed the bill anyway, today in Phoenix, with cameras rolling.
The controversy over the measure has taken nationwide importance, redefining the lines between pro-immigration and anti-immigration, between fairness and justice, between tolerance and prejudice. It has even changed Sen. John McCain, who once fought valiantly for immigration reform. This week McCain
, who is up for re-election this year and finds himself in the fight of his political life, reversed his long-held views and embraced his state's new anti-immigration measure, calling it a "good tool."
Fired up, immigration reform advocates see the law as a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling
that gives a free pass to the police to conduct raids and engage in wholesale harassment of one berated group of people, Hispanics. Incredibly, under this legislation, anyone suspected of being a Latino by skin color, looks, language or accent can be stopped, searched, arrested, and jailed.
President Obama, speaking today, said the Arizona bill threatens to "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans . . ." He added, "If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts
opening up around the country." He's on the hot seat himself with immigrant groups that had expected him to muscle into immigration reform but have seen next to no progress. A Latino political leader, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, told my colleague Patricia Murphy
that there could be "severe consequences for Democrats in November if President Obama and others do not do enough to push back against it, including preempting the state law with federal law."
Whatever its future in the federal courts, the measure highlights the tenor of the times, the polarizing and intractable issue of immigration, and the anger building up in border states that feel invaded by illegal immigrants who, Arizonans fear, are part and parcel of the deadly violence brought about by the smugglers and drug cartels that now plague much of Arizona and other border states.
Arizona has suffered more than most. More people and drugs come illegally through the Sonoran Desert that straddles northern Mexico and southern Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico, west to Yuma, Ariz., than through any other border state. Phoenix and Tucson, especially southernmost Tucson, are cities which feel themselves to be virtually under siege.
"There is a sense of strong anger at not being able to contain and put an end to this invasion of America," Martha L. Day, a hospital systems consultant who calls herself a liberal-leaning independent and lives in Phoenix, told me. "My friends really feel inadequate in their ability to protect themselves and their families against the continual threat of violence. Most carry weapons. There are bars on the windows of homes in regular neighborhoods, border patrol and police are all over the place . . . everything seems to be bolted down so it can't be stolen and sold."
She went on to enumerate the economic and social problems illegal immigrants bring to the state. "One in five prisoners in Arizona jails is an illegal immigrant who committed a felony crossing over; schools are filled to the brim with their children using up resources of the already depleted education system; hospital systems are inundated and have to care for these illegals and absorb their expenses, expenses that will not go away with the national health care change because these folks are not citizens; and huge numbers are needed in police forces for safety and to control the growing number of people coming across the border.''
Another left-leaning independent, Matt Hardin, a window-and-door salesman who lives in Tucson, said, "We need to create a situation where it is simply not worth the risk to come here illegally. In addition, we need to institute policies that make taking the legal route toward citizenship a more attractive option than the illegal option."
Both Hardin and Day see themselves as tolerant, reasonable Obama supporters. Yet on this one issue, at this one place, they've become convinced that something radical has got to be done. Day, referring to the burdens of illegal immigration, said, "These things really fuel the fire of anger and make folks want to do a clean sweep and clean Arizona of the folks from the south. I can see why Arizonans are looking to repeal the concealed weapons permit requirement, why guns are now allowed to be carried into bars, and why the anti-immigration law has been proposed."
And so in Arizona, the anger, the frustration, and the fear have built up over time and spread like wildfire, threatening to consume nearly everything and everyone in its path.