With Arizona’s immigration initiative heading into the Nov. 2 election with solid support, national advocates hope it will lead to stricter immigration controls in Congress and similar reforms in other battleground states.
Out-of-state interest groups have spent more than $1 million to support or defeat Proposition 200, aimed at curbing voter and benefit fraud by non-citizens in Arizona. They have turned the ballot initiative, started by a group of concerned citizens and a self-described “Quaker housewife” from north Phoenix, into a national bellwether on far-reaching immigration reform.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform and related anti-immigration groups that have funded the Proposition 200 campaign want to use Arizona’s vote to spread their restrictionist agenda: a militarized border, a significant decrease or end to legal immigration, deportation of illegal immigrants and opposition to amnesty or guest-worker proposals. They foresee future immigration-related measures in states such as Colorado, Florida and California.
That national agenda is being opposed with national dollars by unions. Service Employees International Union, the major contributor, represents some undocumented workers as well as public employees in Arizona, who could face jail time under Proposition 200 for not reporting illegal immigrants. The union favors guest-worker programs that recognize the needs of the labor market that lures workers across the border and an amnesty program that allows productive workers already here to earn citizenship.
While Proposition 200 does not directly address those issues, Dan Stein, executive director of FAIR, said national politicians should “take the vote of Arizonans as a mandate” for immigration reform with tougher restrictions.
“This movement wants to change the terms of the debate away from accommodation, away from this pan-hemispheric open labor zone, back to a security-based and nation-based border-control structure,” he said, noting support for the White House- and Senate-opposed border controls in the House version of the Sept. 11 security bill.
The leading national backer of Proposition 200 and perhaps the most influential anti-immigration group in the country, FAIR has formed two national coalitions with Americans for Immigration Control, Americans for Better Immigration, and POP.STOP Inc. Together, they have almost entirely funded support for the Arizona initiative.
Stein said he hopes Arizona’s vote “forces a rethinking” and pushes the heavily divided Republican Party away from amnesty or guest-worker programs such as those endorsed by President Bush or introduced in Congress by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake.
Arizona is the most popular point for illegal immigrants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. By coming to the state, the groups not only reach a populace frustrated with national movement on immigration reform but also target a constituency whose national representatives have been the source of “bad thinking” on the topic, Stein says.
John Vinson, editor of Americans for Immigration Control’s newsletter, said if Arizona’s vote is particularly strong in favor of Proposition 200 it could help the groups counter the entrenched political opposition he says their ideas have faced from leaders of both major political parties. The latest Arizona Republic Poll found that 55 percent of respondents intend to vote for the ballot measure.
“This could encourage people in other states to launch other initiatives, and it could encourage our congressmen to take a look at what popular sentiment is,” Vinson said.
Stein said he sees future battlegrounds in Florida and Colorado, where similar ballot initiatives have been attempted and failed, and in California, where a ballot initiative to deny benefits and education to illegal immigrants passed in 1994. It was overturned by the courts.
Roy Beck, president of Americans for Better Immigration, points out that even though California’s Proposition 187 wasn’t implemented, it served as “wake-up call” and is credited with leading to welfare and immigration reforms passed by Congress in 1996.
It “started a chain reaction in the country because the people broke through and I think that could happen in Arizona,” Beck said. “You don’t need it to happen in every state. You just need it to happen somewhere significant.”
To the Service Employees International Union, Arizona is also significant. Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the union, said he fears Proposition 200, if passed, could sidetrack the country from real immigration reform. That is a concern also expressed by McCain and local opposition groups, who have said they fear the “message” of voters if they pass Proposition 200 could derail efforts for far-reaching, progressive reforms in Congress.
“There certainly is a big issue on the question of immigration reform that needs to be addressed in this country,” Medina said, noting that there are millions of people working hard “in the shadows” without the protection of labor laws. “We do not think the way to do that is to create an environment where immigrants are scapegoated or unfairly blamed for problems in this country.”
Medina said the anti-immigration groups pushing Proposition 200 have “a very narrow ideological agenda they are pursuing” that is steeped in racism and does not represent “mainstream America.”
While FAIR has denied a racist agenda and has criticized the local Protect Arizona Now group for having a self-described separatist as a national adviser, its coalition-partner, Americans for Immigration Control, is labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In its online literature, group leaders blame modern-day, non-European immigrants for “undermining our customs, our culture, our language and our institutions.”
“We think if we have a reasonable level (of Mexican immigration) we are not going to face the risk of massive cultural and ethnic changes,” Vinson said, noting that has already happened in the Southwest because, he said, Mexicans have a tendency to form ghettos instead of assimilating with the “mainstream of America.”
The anti-immigration groups have accused Proposition 200 supporters, as well as Bush and McCain, for bowing to corporate interests for cheap labor and say the Service Employees International Union and the other union supporters, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, and the AFL-CIO, are here to recruit members. Vinson, who says the Mexican government is trying to influence American politics by sending immigrants, accuses opponents of the proposition of racism for thinking Mexicans deserve special treatment.
Workers and jobs
On the surface, the rhetoric of both sides is focused on workers and jobs.
Supporters say undocumented workers steal jobs, undercut U.S. wages and contribute to a whole host of social problems from high crime to crowded schools and sprawl.
Opponents say illegal immigrants do come for jobs because they are needed to support the American economy and shouldn’t be targeted because the system is broken while employers skate by.
“We have to face reality,” Medina said. “We have a system of illegality that is not just the workers: It is employers who are hiring them, and, to some degree, it is consumers that are benefiting.”
While anti-immigration activists decry amnesty policies that they say award lawbreakers, Medina said the alternative is deporting hard-working people and breaking up families who may have been here several years and have U.S.-born children.
He and other Proposition 200 opponents stress that the measure does more harm than good. But he said he understands why Arizonans are lending it their support.
“People are legitimately frustrated with our government’s inability to deal with the immigration problem and people are trying to find out how do we solve this problem,” he said. “It is time to say to Congress it is time to deal with the issue.”