Posted on October 1, 2004

Arizona’s Borderline Ballot Issue

Rick Martinez, News Observer (Raleigh), Sep. 29

RALEIGH — The cost of ignoring illegal immigration continues to escalate. The latest payment is being extracted in Arizona, and the reverberations could be felt as far away as North Carolina.

On Nov. 2, Arizona voters decide the fate of Proposition 200, a measure aimed at preventing voter fraud and denying state aid to illegal immigrants. But this fight isn’t about Jose scamming a welfare check or being able to cast a vote for state mine inspector. If passed, Proposition 200 could be the opening act of a national populist ultimatum that screams to the feds, “If you folks won’t fix illegal immigration, we will.”

The main component of Proposition 200, also known as the Protect Arizona Now (PAN) initiative, requires people to prove citizenship when voting and registering for state-provided public benefits. But here’s the kicker. The measure turns public employees into a pseudo army of immigration agents. If a government worker discovers an illegal alien during the course of his duties, PAN requires him to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Failure to do so would be a crime.

But wait, there’s more. Enforcement isn’t left solely to the cops. Citizens could sue local governments, public officials and individual employees if they don’t feel the law is being followed.

Proposition 200 promises to be a judicial quagmire. It’s already survived one court battle to keep it off the ballot. If it passes, the mighty Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is expected to be among the heavyweight advocacy groups that will challenge its constitutionality.

The battle surrounding Proposition 200 has already produced one unintended consequence. It has united Arizona’s usually argumentative political, business, religious and media establishment. They all hate the measure. And they’re pulling out the stops to defeat it. Gov. Janet Napolitano has taken the highly unusual step of authoring an argument against PAN for the state’s sample ballot. Former state Attorney General Grant Woods, a protege of U.S. Sen. John McCain, heads a $2 million campaign against the initiative.

And McCain? He and the entire Arizona congressional delegation think it’s a disaster.

But standing in the way of this powerful coalition is the Arizona electorate. Support is widespread. Separate polls conducted by The Arizona Republic and public station KAET-TV report that two out of three people surveyed favor Proposition 200. Arizona journalists, political consultants and everyday folks I’ve spoken to during the past few weeks think those numbers are solid.

So why are the good people in Arizona supporting an initiative their leaders adamantly believe is so bad?

Frustration. As residents of a border state, Arizonans are fed up with the dark side of illegal immigration and having their pleas for help and reform ignored by some of the very officials who now oppose PAN. While some label popular support for Proposition 200 as racist, it’s not. It’s an act of desperation.

And if PAN passes, we Latinos need to fight the urge to play the outrage card. We helped create this mess. We had a golden opportunity to breathe life into immigration reform earlier this year when President Bush offered a guest worker program. His plan wasn’t perfect, but instead of seizing this historic invitation for engagement, Hispanics advocacy groups followed the lead of the National Council of La Raza and sat on their hands. La Raza’s primary criticism was that the Bush plan didn’t provide a clear path to permanent residency or citizenship.

Give me a break. I doubt permanent residency and citizenship is the No. 1 concern of the average illegal immigrant. He just wants to be able go to a doctor or call the police without fear of being deported.

Advocacy groups did the undocumented community a huge disservice by not recognizing, that although imperfect, Bush’s offer of temporary legal status is far more beneficial than the permanent illegal status they suffer today.

Worse yet, the squandering of this presidential opportunity has emboldened national xenophobic anti-immigrant groups to exploit the growing frustration over the federal government’s inaction.

Which means that if Proposition 200 passes, don’t be surprised if a North Carolina version of that law finds its way into our General Assembly.