The People of Phoenix Want You to Know They’re Not Intolerant

Four years after S.B. 1070 grabbed headlines, Phoenix Republicans adopt a more moderate, inclusive tone.

Protesters opposed to Arizona's Immigration Law SB 1070 march through downtown Phoenix April 25, 2012. Immigrant rights advocates held a day of protest the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over Arizona's 2010 immigration enforcement law.
Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images
Dec. 16, 2014, 6:10 a.m.

Not so long ago, Phoenix grabbed na­tion­al head­lines for its anti-il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion policies, and was known for politi­cians who pushed those ef­forts to ex­tremes. And yet four years after the state’s most con­tro­ver­sial un­der­tak­ing, Sen­ate Bill 1070, much of the Phoenix met­ro­pol­it­an area is try­ing to for­get that his­tory as it struggles to pre­pare its Latino pop­u­la­tion to be­come the ma­jor­ity.

It was in this val­ley of 4 mil­lion people that Mari­copa County Sher­iff Joe Arpaio star­ted a hot­line for people to re­port neigh­bors they thought were in the coun­try il­leg­ally. It was here that depu­ties swarmed mostly Latino neigh­bor­hoods to con­duct im­mig­ra­tion and de­port­a­tion sweeps. And here in a Phoenix sub­urb called Mesa, a state sen­at­or presen­ted the bill that spawned na­tion­al protests, in­spired oth­er states to crack down on il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, drew in­ter­na­tion­al de­nounce­ment, and nearly tore a com­munity apart.

In 2010 Ari­zona Gov. Jan Brew­er signed S.B. 1070 in­to law. Among oth­er things, it re­quired im­mig­rants to carry spe­cial doc­u­ment­a­tion, made it a crime for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to work, and re­quired loc­al law-en­force­ment of­ficers to ques­tion people they sus­pec­ted were in the coun­try il­leg­ally.

“What it called for was scru­tin­iz­ing people who showed signs of be­ing an il­leg­al im­mig­rant,” says John Giles, the Re­pub­lic­an may­or of Mesa. “In oth­er words, if someone had brown skin, they had one strike against them.”

The law widened a rift in a com­munity where nearly one-third of the pop­u­la­tion is Latino. It led to boy­cotts and busi­ness clos­ures, and left fam­il­ies fear­ful to leave their homes.

But S.B. 1070 also had an un­ex­pec­ted ef­fect: Four years later, it has shif­ted the Phoenix im­mig­ra­tion de­bate to a much more cent­rist po­s­i­tion, one less fo­cused on en­force­ment and more sens­it­ive to the Latino com­munity.

“Main­stream people or politi­cians in Phoenix will for­get S.B. 1070, but there’s a 16-year-old kid some­where in Phoenix who was sep­ar­ated from his moth­er,” says Barry Broome, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Great­er Phoenix Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil. “And when that kid is 30-something and opens a busi­ness, and then runs for may­or, that guy is not go­ing to for­get what happened.”

This curi­ous polit­ic­al and cul­tur­al shift in Phoenix—which could have enorm­ous con­sequences for the fu­ture of Ari­zona—largely mir­rors the rise and fall of Rus­sell Pearce, au­thor of S.B. 1070, and a man once called Ari­zona’s most power­ful politi­cian.

* * *

Be­fore Pearce was pres­id­ent of the Ari­zona state Sen­ate, he worked as a sher­iff’s deputy un­der Arpaio. While on duty in Guada­lupe in the 1970s, Pearce lost a fin­ger on his right hand when it was shot off by a Latino teen­ager. Two dec­ades later, in 2004, Pearce’s son Sean, who also be­came a deputy, was shot by a Mex­ic­an man who was in the coun­try il­leg­ally. 

Pearce doesn’t mince words when talk­ing about un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, re­fer­ring to the im­mig­ra­tion prob­lem as one of “in­vaders” and “for­eign crim­in­als.” When Mesa voters sent Pearce to the state Le­gis­lature in 2000, he found his pas­sion in ef­forts to tight­en im­mig­ra­tion laws. He backed a 2004 bal­lot meas­ure that re­quired proof of leg­al res­id­ency to vote or re­ceive state ser­vices. And he was a en­thu­si­ast­ic sup­port­er of a 2007 bill to re­voke li­censes from busi­nesses that em­ployed un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. The rise of the Tea Party that same year gave Pearce a vo­cal fol­low­ing and con­stitu­ency.  

“Rus­sell and his friends were really or­gan­ized, and really took con­trol of the loc­al polit­ic­al ma­chinery,” says cur­rent Mesa Coun­cil mem­ber Den­nis Kavanaugh.

The gov­ernor signed Pearce’s S.B. 1070 in­to law in April 2010. It was al­most im­me­di­ately chal­lenged by the Justice De­part­ment. Just as swiftly, act­iv­ists called for a boy­cott of the state. The Cen­ter For Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, a lib­er­al think tank, cal­cu­lated that Ari­zona lost $141 mil­lion in the first year be­cause of vis­it­ors can­cel­ling trips and con­fer­ences. The new Phoenix Con­ven­tion Cen­ter saw a 30 per­cent drop in book­ings. Mex­ico’s then-pres­id­ent, Fe­lipe Calder­ón, called S.B. 1070 “a vi­ol­a­tion of hu­man rights.”

“At the end of the day, it didn’t fare well for the state, for eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment,” says cur­rent Mesa Coun­cil mem­ber Dav­id Luna. “And when the gov­ernor signed that bill, she cer­tainly cre­ated an en­vir­on­ment that said, ‘You’re not wel­come here if you’re dif­fer­ent.’ “

Then, sev­er­al events col­lided to check Pearce’s up­ward tra­ject­ory. The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints (the Mor­mon church), of which Pearce is a mem­ber and which has a large rep­res­ent­a­tion in Mesa, came out in sup­port of a softer stance on im­mig­ra­tion. At the same time, the na­tion­al spot­light on Pearce and his law fed a loc­al back­lash.

“People ban­ded to­geth­er, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans, and said, ‘Enough is enough. Rus­sell Pearce is not the face of Mesa,’ ” Kavanaugh says.

In May 2011, a non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion sub­mit­ted about 17,000 sig­na­tures and re­called Pearce. His op­pon­ent in the re­call elec­tion was polit­ic­al first-timer Jerry Lewis, who was a Re­pub­lic­an and a Mor­mon, like Pearce. The re­call elec­tion was a mess, with Pearce’s sup­port­ers ac­cus­ing Lewis, who was su­per­in­tend­ent of a charter school chain, of steal­ing back­packs from home­less chil­dren, and Pearce deal­ing with dis­clos­ures that he had ac­cep­ted mul­tiple free out-of-state trips from Fiesta Bowl or­gan­izers. Pearce sup­port­ers also draf­ted a “sham can­did­ate,” a Latino wo­man who was in­ten­ded to si­phon votes from Lewis. 

Pearce lost the elec­tion and be­came the first Ari­zona politi­cian ever to be re­called. He ran again the next year in a re­tooled le­gis­lat­ive dis­trict against an­oth­er polit­ic­al new­bie, Bob Wors­ley, founder of SkyMall magazine. Wors­ley was an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ate, a Mor­mon who served a mis­sion in South Amer­ica, where he learned Span­ish.

In June 2012, the Su­preme Court struck down most of S.B. 1070. Two months later Pearce lost to Wors­ley in the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primary elec­tion. And in 2014, voters proved the out­come was more than just dis­pleas­ure with Pearce when Wors­ley beat an­oth­er far-right con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an. 

Mod­er­at­ism and a con­cili­at­ory ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion seemed to have won out in Mesa.

“We just be­came a ma­jor­ity-minor­ity school sys­tem,” Wors­ley says. “And those kids are go­ing to gradu­ate, and they will be­come the ma­jor­ity of this town. The fu­ture be­longs the them, and I’m try­ing to be one of the grin­gos who sees this demo­graph­ic shift and teaches them to re­gister to vote, teaches them how to be suc­cess­ful in in­dustry.”

* * *

This is the fu­ture of Phoenix—and also its di­lemma. For years, the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate largely sucked up all the polit­ic­al air in the room. Now the fu­ture Latino ma­jor­ity may be un­pre­pared to take over.

The Mor­ris­on In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Policy at Ari­zona State Uni­versity re­cently re­leased a re­port out­lining the edu­ca­tion gap among Latino youth. It noted that Latino stu­dents score lower than their white coun­ter­parts in all areas on the SAT. It also found that Latino stu­dents are scor­ing lower today on AP ex­ams than they were a dec­ade ago.

Poverty is the most rel­ev­ant factor when de­term­in­ing edu­ca­tion­al suc­cess or fail­ure. And al­though Lati­nos rep­res­ent 30 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion, they make up nearly half of those liv­ing in poverty.

“We ab­so­lutely have to ad­dress the Latino pop­u­la­tion,” says Sybil Fran­cis, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for the Fu­ture of Ari­zona. “And, cer­tainly, Ari­zona is rightly viewed as on the lead­ing edge, be­cause for the eco­nom­ic vi­ab­il­ity of the state we have to ad­dress this gap.”

The Mor­ris­on In­sti­tute’s re­port, “Dropped? Latino Edu­ca­tion and Ari­zona’s Eco­nom­ic Fu­ture,” pre­dicted that if something doesn’t change, the av­er­age in­come in Phoenix and across the state will drop, few­er res­id­ents will have health care, and there will be few­er qual­i­fied work­ers, which will res­ult in a loss of busi­ness com­ing to the state.

Ari­zona risks be­com­ing a “second- or third-tier state,” says Joseph Gar­cia, a board mem­ber of the Ari­zona Minor­ity Edu­ca­tion Policy Ana­lys­is Cen­ter.

Part of the prob­lem in ad­dress­ing these is­sues lies in Ari­zona’s huge gen­er­a­tion­al gap. As of 2011, the me­di­an age of His­pan­ics in the state was 25, while the me­di­an age of non-His­pan­ic whites was 45. The Latino pop­u­la­tion is also play­ing catch-up in terms of es­tab­lish­ing polit­ic­al pres­ence and in­flu­ence. While Lati­nos make up one-quarter of the pop­u­la­tion in Mesa, for ex­ample, Dav­id Luna be­came the first Latino city coun­cil mem­ber just last year. 

“In the end we might look back on 1070 and see it as a net pos­it­ive,” says Giles, Mesa’s may­or. “It woke us up to be­ing more sens­it­ive to the His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion. It woke the His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion up to the idea that they need to be en­gaged polit­ic­ally or they’re go­ing to get run over.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Phoenix to see how some loc­al people and or­gan­iz­a­tions have taken it upon them­selves to pre­pare for the Latino ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion shift. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about how these people are shap­ing their com­munity and the fu­ture of Phoenix.

Libby Is­en­stein con­trib­uted to this art­icle.

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle ori­gin­ally stated that “of the [Ari­zona] pop­u­la­tion age 50 or older, more than 40 per­cent are white.” In fact, of the white pop­u­la­tion in Ari­zona, 40 per­cent are over age 50. That sen­tence has been re­moved and re­placed with a new stat­ist­ic com­par­ing the me­di­an ages of His­pan­ics and non-His­pan­ic whites in Ari­zona.

Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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