This week’s unveiling of the birthright-citizenship legislation marked the beginning of the next crusade for illegal-immigration hawks and signaled a call to arms for Democrats. But it led business-friendly Republicans in the Arizona Legislature into a political minefield.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers, including a host of first-year legislators, now face a career-threatening quandary: arouse the wrath of grassroots Republican activists by voting against the birthright-citizenship bill, or buck the business interests who help pay for their campaigns and have cautioned against another round of immigration legislation.
The legislation poses no problem for the conservative lawmakers who have allied themselves with Sen. Russell Pearce on previous immigration legislation, such as last year’s SB1070. Many, including Rep. John Kavanagh and Sen. Ron Gould, have indicated they will vote for the legislation.
Other Republicans, such as Gov. Jan Brewer, have equivocated on the issue repeatedly and, even after the unveiling, took the politically safe route.
On Jan. 5, Brewer told reporters it’s “worthwhile to have it vetted or debated” and she’s “interested to hear what exactly they have to say back there,” but she refused to take a position on the legislation.
“I’m going to reserve the right to listen to the debate in regards to that and learn as we move through this process,” Brewer said.
Some of country’s leading advocates against birthright citizenship are Arizona Republicans. Pearce, the author of SB1070, sparked the nationwide debate on the birthright citizenship issue in May when he vowed to introduce such a bill. And Kavanagh and Gould represented Arizona at the Jan. 5 press conference in Washington, D.C., where model legislation on the issue was unveiled.
The legislation, which is expected to be introduced by lawmakers in 14 states, defines the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to exclude the children of illegal immigrants, and would use separate birth certificates for such children. Supporters say the bill is designed to force a lawsuit that they hope would reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the bill won’t get through the Arizona Legislature without the support of moderate Republicans.
Many Republican lawmakers were squeamish about taking a stance on birthright citizenship, especially those whose campaigns were backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business groups. Some said they couldn’t take a position until they read the bill, though the issue has been hotly debated since Pearce first pitched the idea eight months ago.
“I think the issue definitely needs to be looked at,” said Sen. Nancy Barto, who added that she hadn’t read the bill because it had yet to be introduced in the Arizona Legislature.
Sen. John McComish took a similar stance, saying, “It’s a complicated issue. I’d rather hold off on saying anything more until we have a bill.”
Some lawmakers refused to take a position on the bill, though a few of them dropped hints about how they may vote when the time comes.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican, said furor over SB1070 cost the state millions from lost tourism and conventions, and said she doesn’t want to see Arizona engaged in another court battle with the federal government.
“We have a problem. I just don’t know if this is the way to go about solving it,” McGee said.
Rep. Russ Jones, a Republican from Yuma, said he opposes the bill. He said birthright citizenship is clearly a federal issue that would require a constitutional amendment, and doesn’t believe that legal action by the states can change the interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
“I’ll probably vote against the bill,” said Jones, a Yuma representative. “I suspect there will be others (in the GOP) who will vote against it.”
The best hope for uncommitted Republicans may be for negotiations over the budget and economic reforms to drag on through the end of the fiscal year. Brewer and others frequently say the Legislature shouldn’t consider illegal immigration legislation until it deals with those top priorities, and even the most vehement supporters of the birthright citizenship proposal say it will have to take a back seat.
Sen. Rich Crandall, a Republican from Mesa, said he hadn’t read the bill and refused to comment on the birthright citizenship issue. Instead, he focused on the issues the Legislature will take up first.
“This will not be priority number one. Russell (Pearce) has even said this,” Crandall said. “Jobs and the economy will be priority number one.”
Bruce Merrill, a pollster and political science professor at Arizona State University, said the severity of the budget crisis and Arizona’s economic problems give moderate Republicans an opportunity to sidestep the issue. There’s a lot of truth to the notion that Arizona has more important priorities right now, Merrill said, but Republicans who are caught in the middle aren’t eager to tackle the issue anyway, especially considering the popularity of tough-on-illegal-immigration measures.
“It certainly makes sense to say, in terms of priorities, let’s focus on jobs and the state budget,” Merrill said. “But it also, from a political point of view, gives them a little leeway.”
During a press conference at the Arizona Capitol on the same day as the unveiling, Democratic officials and Latino activists decried the bill as racist, unfair and unconstitutional. Some compared it to Arizona voters’ infamous rejection of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1990, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“It targets Latinos,” lawyer Antonio Bustamante said.
But opponents of the bill also frame it as an issue of priorities. One speaker at the Democrats’ press conference, Stefan Dollak, a music teacher who lost his job more than two years ago, said he’s frustrated that he can’t find a job and that his wife has been placed on a part-time status while the Legislature is only “obliquely” working to improve the economy.
“In most cases I can find no correlation whatsoever between actions, especially regarding the 14th Amendment, and the situation of myself and many other people like me. The priority is the economy,” Dollak said.