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The Arizona "model": failed immigration policy, successful voter mobilization

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voz y votoIn order to win over the most conservative, extremist voters in the Arizona Republican primary (which will be held Tuesday, February 28th), presidential candidate Mitt Romney called the state’s immigration policy a “model” for others to follow.

But reality says otherwise.

As “ground zero” for anti-immigrant state laws, Arizona—with not only SB 1070, but the abuses of Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce and Jan Brewer—has become a laboratory for failed immigration policies, with negative humanitarian and economic effects.

The only “model” worth following in Arizona is the activism and voter mobilization, especially among Hispanics, to fight back against the anti-immigrant tsunami and its awful consequences.

While it’s not expected that a large percentage of Latinos will vote in next week’s primary, they are expected to help make Arizona a battleground state in November’s general election.

In the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, won his own state by only 9 percentage points—54% to Democrat Barack Obama’s 45%. This year, leaving nothing to chance, the Obama campaign has opened multiple offices across the country—including four (as of this writing) in Arizona. They didn’t even contest the state in 2008, but they plan to battle for it this time around.

And many anticipate that the anti-immigrant policies that started with SB 1070 and their effects—especially the depressed economy, a tarnished state image and the target they’ve placed on the back of all Hispanics, regardless of immigration status—will make for powerful motivation for voters, especially Latinos, in this November’s election. In Arizona, Latinos represent 30% of the state’s population and 16% of its registered voters, according to the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO).

Already, we can see tangible effects of how anti-immigrant rhetoric and its consequences mobilize voters—and not just Hispanic voters, either.


In November of 2011, Russell Pearce, President of the Arizona Senate and the lead sponsor of SB 1070, was removed from office after a successful recall campaign in his majority-Republican, heavily conservative district. He became the first state legislator in Arizona history to be recalled.

Post-election analysis revealed that voters were tired of the senator focusing all his attention on promoting a single law—SB 1070—that had had lasting economic effects on a state already in crisis, and tired of his divisive persona and inflammatory rhetoric.

Randy Parraz, co-founder and president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group that led the recall campaign, said that, partisanship aside, the “Pearce effect” has been beneficial for all of Arizona’s voters and residents.

For one thing, the Republican who replaced Pearce, Jerry Lewis, doesn’t support anti-immigrant policies “and he was the deciding vote in electing the new president of the Senate, Steve Pearce, who was not a Russell Pearce supporter and who is not into anti-immigrant legislation.”

Secondly, “it’s sent a message of  what’s possible in Arizona, where progressives and moderates could come together to make this type of change and to then make history in the process was also very special,” he said.

“Third, the people who got involved in the political process for the first time now have been transformed by that process. They now know that they can change things with their vote, that if you get involved, you can make a difference,” Parraz added. He’s now leading a campaign to push for Sheriff Arpaio’s resignation. “Arpaio’s next”, said Parraz. “Our effort is not about getting rid of Republlicans and Democrats. Is about getting rid of those extreme elements that will make it difficult to do politics.”


Understanding that involvement in politics can make a difference has helped the efforts of non-partisan groups dedicated to voter registration and mobilization.

The One Arizona coalition, for example, is made up of 10 non-partisan organizations (including Mi Familia Vota, Democracia USA and Promise Arizona) who are focused exclusively on voter registration, education and mobilization, and on training Hispanics who want to run for public office.

“Everything that’s happened in Arizona in the last few years has mobilized the Latino community. There’s more energy and motivation. We have the opportunity to bring changes to Arizona and to influence November’s election,” said Petra Falcón, executive director of Promise Arizona.


Voter mobilization didn’t just contribute to Pearce’s defeat in 2011, but to the election of a Hispanic Democrat, Daniel Valenzuela, to represent District 5 on the Phoenix City Council.

“From 2007 to 2011, Hispanic voter turnout in District 5 quintupled to elect Valenzuela and put 2 Hispanics on the city council for the first time ever,” explained James García, president of Arizona Latino Research Enterprise.

The other Hispanic city council member is Democrat Michael Nowakowski.

Hispanic voter turnout in Phoenix tripled in 2011.

Garcia hypothesized that the intensification of attacks, ostensibly on the immigrant community, but in reality on all Hispanics, over the past decade—from anti-bilingual-education initiatives to Arpaio’s abuses and excesses—reached a tipping point with SB 1070, generating an electoral phenomenon in Arizona similar to what happened in California after Proposition 187.

The coalitions that have formed, representing diverse ideologies, but a unified goal of “moving the state in the other direction,” have made positive steps, Garcia added. He also praised the work of the voter-mobilization groups.

Some argue that Barack Obama’s unkept promise to pass immigration reform might impede mobilization efforts. But in Arizona, García said, any frustration won’t wash away the fact that over the past two to four years, the state’s Republican Party has engaged in a relentless effort of pounding immigrants to the ground.  

In fact, the defeated Pearce has resurfaced as First Vice Chair of the Arizona Republican Party. And Arpaio’s name was dropped several times during Wednesday’s Republican debate in Mesa, Arizona, where he was seated in the front rows and was the central focus of the question Romney answered by calling Arizona an immigration “model.”

Republicans shouldn’t put too much confidence in the fact that, so far, Arizona has stayed in the Republican column.


García says one candidate to watch is former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican-born candidate running as a Democrat for the seat currently occupied by retiring Republican Senator Jon Kyl. His likely Republican opponent is Jeff Flake, a congressman who once wrote a comprehensive immigration reform bill—which he now disavows.

García predicted that Hispanics will vote overwhelmingly for Carmona, which might provide coattails for Obama, making him very competitive in the state. Arizona is one of the Western states Democrats hope to win to compensate for possible losses in other parts of the country, and states where the Latino vote is key.

“The combination of Carmona’s candidacy, the relentless antagonism of the Republican Party, the fact that it’s a presidential election year, and the consolidation of voter-mobilization efforts will result, I hope, in the highest voter turnout for Hispanics in the history of Arizona,” García concluded.