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.
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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.”
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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.