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A suspect, left, is fingerprinted by a Maricopa Country Sheriff's detention officer on Monday, July 26, 2010 to check his immigration status at a 287(g) processing station after being brought from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Ross D. Franklin/AP photo)
A suspect, left, is fingerprinted by a Maricopa Country Sheriff's detention officer on Monday, July 26, 2010 to check his immigration status at a 287(g) processing station after being brought from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Ross D. Franklin/AP photo)

In backing Arizona's immigration law, GOP flirts with electoral danger Add to ...

Her Republican Secretary of State, Jan Brewer, stepped up to fill her shoes, and now the conditions were altered. At an April 23 ceremony in the state capitol, she signed the toughest immigration bill in the United States into law - a law that seeks to drive an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants out of the state.

The day the law was enacted by Ms. Brewer, Mr. Pearce stood at the back of the room at the state capitol that afternoon, reluctant to steal her thunder but quietly elated. "I felt like a player that just scored in the final five seconds of a good basketball game," he said. "I was excited, I'd worked on this for years."

Since then, his phone has not stopped ringing. He gets perhaps a dozen media requests a day, including calls from reporters from Spain, Britain and Germany anxious speak to the man who has forced a national debate on immigration and fanned conservative embers smoldering in the Republican Party.

He has also been dubbed a racist by critics, who point out that both the number of illegals flocking across the border as well as crimes has been declining over the past several years. Opponents of the law also note that illegal immigrants mostly work in low-paid jobs on farms, in construction and in the hospitality industry - oftentimes in jobs that legal residents have long shunned.

The law has sparked interest in Republican-controlled state legislatures around the United States.

Among them is Utah, where Republican Representative Stephen Sandstrom recently took a daylong trip to the Mexico border with Mr. Pearce and other lawmakers and staff. They toured a stretch of the dusty desert strip, marked by an incomplete and much criticized steel border fence, speaking to Border Patrol agents.

Back home in Utah, Mr. Sandstrom says he will be introducing similar legislation in coming weeks, setting the process in motion by introducing it in committee in late August or early September at the latest.

"There's a groundswell of support for this," said Mr. Sandstrom, who has pushed anti-immigrant legislation for the past four years. "I think it took until this year for the people of Utah to say enough is enough. ... it's going to pass; there's no doubt in my mind about that."

Republicans in Utah are not the only ones keen on copying Arizona. The National Conference of State Legislatures said that five other states - South Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island - have introduced Arizona-style immigrant legislation so far this year. And there are reports that lawmakers and other officials in as many as 20 states - Mr. Pearce puts the number at 34 - are poised to push for similar measures after the summer recess.

But it will be a legal slog.

Arizona is currently fighting lawsuits from the U.S. Justice Department and six other plaintiffs, including civil rights and advocacy groups. If U.S. District court Judge Susan Bolton does not dismiss them all, the legal battle could drag on for years.

"It's going to depend a lot on what happens in Arizona," said Ann Morse, program director for the NCSL's Immigration Policy Project. States "don't want to spend what little money they have tied up in the courts." she said.

Amid the street protests against the measure in Phoenix last week, President Obama's Justice Department lawyers launched their challenge to the state law, and the political topology was established.

"This issue is way bigger than immigration. It is Obama overreaching," said business student Bryan Berkland, 25, struggling to make himself heard over chants and beating drums outside U.S. District Court in Phoenix Thursday.

"It's the federal government overstepping its bounds," added Mr. Berkland, an independent who said Mr. Obama's challenge would clinch his vote for the Republicans.

But while the law and the administration's measures to counter it may energize some voters, analysts say illegal immigration is unlikely to become the decisive issue in any of the congressional districts that are coming into play next fall, except possibly in a handful of Arizona House races.

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