With the scrawl of a pen, GOP Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona awakened the dormant but explosive issue of illegal immigration, sending shock waves across the political spectrum in an election year when both parties had hoped to sidestep the topic.
Two months after Brewer signed a law instructing police to demand proof of a questionable person’s legal status, voters have refocused on a topic that had faded into the background after Congress failed to overhaul the immigration system in 2007.
Protests have flared. Lawsuits have followed. Arizona boycotts are under way. More than 20 states are discussing similar efforts.
Polls again put border security and immigration among voters’ top concerns.
“It’s not just a problem in Arizona; it’s a problem everywhere. People are just furious,” Gary Widemann says of illegal immigration. “Something needs to be done.”
He would know. Widemann, 59, splits his time between Arizona, a big gateway for illegal immigrants with an estimated 460,000 living there, and South Dakota, which has a small Hispanic population but relies on immigrants — legal or not — to fill jobs at its meatpacking plants.
“What the Arizona law did tap into was the idea that we’ve got to control our borders,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. “This law really galvanized public opinion on that one aspect of this issue.”
Politicians from President Barack Obama down find themselves again wrestling with a topic that’s politically perilous for Republicans and Democrats alike, particularly in an election year and as both parties seek to court Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.
They have little choice.
An Associated Press-GfK poll this month found that 85 percent of people now rank immigration as an important issue.
Every spoke in the wheel of American life is touched by it.
Porous borders and undocumented people have national security implications. Foreign workers become an important part of the economy, filling low-paying jobs and possibly depressing wage scales in higher-paying ones. Schools, businesses and most other entities are forced to adapt to immigrant-swelled populations. Family, race and social norms also are at play.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who faces a fierce re-election fight in Nevada, pushed for legislation in the spring to provide an eventual path to citizenship — what critics call amnesty — for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Reid was accused of pandering and he shelved the plan when other Democrats declined to jump aboard.
In Arizona, Attorney General Terry Goddard opposes the law in a state that overwhelmingly supports it. The Democratic nominee for governor, he’s trying to figure out just how to challenge Brewer on the issue.
Republican candidates also find themselves in a tight spot. Social conservatives want a get-tough policy on illegal immigrants, agriculture operations fear it will be too tough and businesses want more visas for immigrants possessing high-tech skills.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP champion of a comprehensive immigration reform when Congress last debated the issue, now advocates securing the border first. “Complete the dang fence,” McCain says in a TV ad in his GOP primary race against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a staunch border-security advocate.
“Would I have written the bill? Probably not,” McCain said in a recent interview. “But the fact is people in Arizona are frustrated because the federal government didn’t act. People feel very passionate about it, here and everywhere.”
In California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s GOP challenger, Carly Fiorina, is finding that her defense of the Arizona law during the GOP primary could turn off Hispanics she needs to win in November. Meg Whitman, the state’s GOP candidate for governor, shifted to the right on immigration during the primary but is now courting Hispanics with a TV ad that notes her opposition to the Arizona law.
Scorching now, the issue is certain to become even hotter as the nation’s minority population steadily rises. Boosted by a surge in Hispanic births and people who call themselves multiracial, minorities now make up 35 percent of the U.S. population. Both parties are courting them.
Democrats have an edge. But Hispanic support isn’t guaranteed. “This is a very tricky issue for the administration and for Democrats, in particular, because the Latino vote has been an important part of the Obama coalition,” said Kohut.
Obama typifies the conflicted politicians.
He called the Arizona law irresponsible. But he also dispatched 1,200 more National Guard troops to the southern border to show he’s sympathetic to slowing the tide of illegal immigrants. Obama supports the same legislation that Reid advocates, but the president is not putting it at the top of his priorities.
The latest AP-GfK poll shows about half the country now has a sour view of how he’s handled the issue.