Protesters opposed to Arizona's immigration law SB 1070 march in… (Jonathan Gibby, Getty Images )
TUCSON — Two years after Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration was signed into law, putting the state front and center in the debate over one of the nation's most controversial issues, the firestorm over illegal immigration has subsided a bit.
The sputtering economy, a push by business leaders to avoid controversy and a sense of fatigue by some over the charged issue combined to push illegal immigration out of the spotlight, though it remains a touchy issue in the border state, experts and residents say.
"People look at Latinos a little differently now," Michael Barrios, 56, who was born and raised in Tucson, said Wednesday, the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of parts of the Arizona law, SB 1070. Barrios said that the law's passage made him realize that some people "have a prejudicial opinion of me that perhaps I am an illegal alien."
Some of SB 1070's more vocal defenders have said the law simply tries to maintain law and order. In fact, they note, the law forbids racial profiling.
In between those extremes lies a wide variety of opinions. Indeed, the positions of Arizonans on immigration are more nuanced than outsiders generally know, said Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
A poll due Thursday shows that 65% of Arizonans support the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are college students or members of the military, Merrill said. At the same time, about 60% continue to support SB 1070.
Perhaps contributing to the diminished sense of urgency is the fact that the number of illegal immigrants in the state has dropped significantly since the law went into effect in 2010, though federal courts have blocked several of its provisions.
There are about 360,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Arizona, compared with 460,000 in 2009, according to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security. What caused that drop is unclear; the number of illegal immigrants residing nationwide is also down.
Damian Luna, 55, of Tucson said friends left the state after SB 1070 because "they said it was too radical here. They didn't have their paperwork in order."
Republican consultant Doug Cole, who worked on the campaigns of Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070 into law, said immigration continued to be an important issue in the state, but it took second place to the economy.
"The No. 1 issue in the polling we've been doing remains the economy and jobs," he said. But, he added, "until the federal government does its job, immigration will remain a top-tier issue, especially in the Southwest."
Salvador Reza, a community organizer in Phoenix, said that for many undocumented immigrants, the immediate reaction to the law was fear. Many families he knew left the state after its passage, even though many of its toughest provisions were not enacted. A small percentage of those families have since returned, he said.
"Before it used to be all fear," he said. "Now we're getting proactive in the community, organizing in a way that was not there before."
The business community, Reza said, "came in and used their political clout to put a stop to some of this mainly because of the economic consequences." In 2011 other bills designed to crack down on illegal immigration, such as one challenging birthright citizenship, got nowhere in the Arizona Legislature.
A boycott of the state in protest of the law also hit hard.
One study by the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress said that conventions canceled after SB 1070 cost the state more than $23 million in lost tax revenue and at least $350 million in direct spending by conventions' would-be attendees.
Melissa Watson, 27, and Angela Creamer, 23, of Tucson both support the law and acknowledge that Arizona's reputation has taken a beating because of it. They've both seen a lot of bumper stickers in the Tucson area denouncing it. One popular one says: "I could be illegal."
"There are a lot more bumper stickers," Creamer said.
"We've been called racist," Watson said of the state. "But, yeah, lots of bumper stickers."
Former state Senate Majority Leader Alfredo Gutierrez said demonstrations in Phoenix were expected to be modest because many in the Latino community "have had it. They're done with the bitterness and the politics."
Kathleen Hertenstein, who teaches English as a second language at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said many who opposed the law felt overwhelmed by the challenge of overturning it.
"For a while the news was saturated with it, but people gave up," she said. "They didn't lose interest or hope, they're just up against a huge wall."
For many Latinos, a sense of uneasiness prevails, especially in the Phoenix area, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio built a reputation rounding up illegal immigrants.
Tucson resident Luna said that friends who visited Phoenix made sure they had their green cards or other identification because they feared they'll be stopped by police. He does too — and he's a U.S. citizen.
"A lot more people are stopped on the street up there," he said. "I'm scared to go up there. That place scares me."
Correspondent Kimble reported from Tucson, Times staff writers Esquivel and Castellanos from Los Angeles.