Call it Proposition 187 redux. Last week, backers of a ballot measure dubbed "Protect Arizona Now" turned in petitions signed by 190,887 residents of that state calling for the initiative to be put to voters in November. The local political establishment was stunned. No one had expected the measure, which would deny state services to illegal immigrants, to garner anything like that kind of support -- over 50% more signatures than required to get it on the ballot. If the signatures hold up, Arizonans will pick up where Californians left off 10 years ago, in another ugly battle over immigration.
The main article of the PAN initiative is so broadly worded that it is hard to tell exactly what it would accomplish. Proponents claim it provides a way to enforce existing Arizona law, which already denies illegal immigrants welfare benefits. Opponents argue that its effects could be far more draconian, stripping away essential services, including healthcare.
Either way, in Arizona as in California, the political stakes could hardly be higher. A polarizing, partisan fight would have serious repercussions for the state Republican Party and the national debate on immigration policy. Few Californians need to be reminded how Republican support for Proposition 187 all but killed the party's chances with Latino voters. And another showy anti-immigrant vote could deal a serious blow to immigration reform -- scaring the White House and Congress away from even considering a more effective, federal solution for fear they might appear soft on illegal immigration.
It's no accident that this battle has shifted to Arizona. The federal government drove it there five or six years ago by cracking down on the border in California, a move that funneled the flow of migrants through the Arizona desert. Traffic through the Border Patrol's Tucson sector has soared in recent years, and Arizona residents are feeling the ill effects, often in the most visceral ways.
Ranchers on the border complain that bands of illegal migrants file across their lands, cutting fences, disturbing animals and leaving a sea of trash. Others -- liberals and conservatives alike -- feel that the Border Patrol is even more of a nuisance: the number of agents has skyrocketed, mostly to good effect, but they roam the region at will in their four-wheel drives, trampling grassland and interrogating motorists.
Healthcare providers face mounting costs. Crossing the Sonoran desert is a dangerous business; 105 migrants have died of exposure this year alone and many others end up in local hospitals. In Phoenix, immigrant smugglers warehouse their clients in filthy stash houses, then fight over them in gun battles that endanger local residents. No wonder Arizonans are clamoring for a solution -- any solution.
Enter the backers of the PAN initiative. They have ample outside support -- the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform spent nearly $450,000 in recent weeks to gather signatures for the measure. And they've done some savvy strategizing, wrapping the provision on state services in a second, far more reasonable clause requiring that people registering to vote in Arizona prove they are U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, the initiative's most objectionable article -- making it a misdemeanor, punishable by jail time, for any state employee in any agency or institution to fail to report illegal immigrants applying for services -- is buried in the fine print.
Still, PAN opponents also have some advantages. Arizona voters seem to understand that what is occurring in their communities is not something the state can cure by withholding basic services from transients. Unlike in California, where early polls showed as much as 75% to 80% of voters in favor of Proposition 187, a recent survey in Arizona showed support for PAN hovering closer to 60%.
More important, unlike in California, most Republican elected officials appear to be opposed to the measure. No member of the Arizona congressional delegation, or any other statewide politician, has supported it. And business leaders, who understand the value of immigrant labor, are adamantly against, at least in private meetings.
California's Proposition 187 debacle holds several lessons for PAN's opponents. The biggest mistake then was the failure to create a broad-based, bipartisan coalition to denounce what could easily have been characterized as an extremist measure. Instead, it was the opposition that appeared extremist: all Mexican flags and protest rallies. Arizonans needn't repeat that blunder. After all, the business community, the political establishment, unions, immigrant advocates, Latino leaders and the state's active religious left all share reservations about the measure.
The critical question is whether this widespread but until now muted disapproval will translate into vocal opposition and an aggressive effort to block the initiative. The biggest obstacle facing PAN's opponents is their own fear that they have no chance of winning. Given the increase in immigrant traffic through the state, and the voter anxiety it is generating, they may be right. But of course, if they don't mobilize, their fear can only become a self-fulfilling prophecy.