With another election season fast approaching, border security remains a priority, but many lawmakers and political insiders say support for local immigration-enforcement measures appears to be waning.
The prevailing mood is that lawmakers might not have the appetite to wage emotionally draining battles over illegal immigration at a time when the state faces a more immediate menace — a sagging economy and the loss of 300,000 jobs during the recession.
Even Senate President Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona’s go-it- alone efforts to curb illegal immigration, has recently made a message makeover, emphasizing his accomplishments for small businesses and tax cuts.
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But even if Pearce or other hawks push for more anti-illegal immigration measures, other hurdles remain.
First, they will have to win over the same Senate that already rejected five controversial immigration measures last session, including a proposal that supporters say was aimed at getting the U.S.
Supreme Court to ultimately deny automatic citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants.
That’s assuming Pearce, who is facing an historic recall election on Nov. 8, retains his seat this year.
“I would assume given the makeup of the body, which hasn’t changed, that you would have the same outcome as you had last year, which was nothing,” said Chuck Coughlin, a top adviser to Gov. Jan Brewer and a close supporter of Pearce.
Those defeated measures included a proposal to, among other things, deny illegal immigrants access to public benefits like operating vehicles, enrolling in community colleges and receiving medical aid.
Another bill would have required hospitals to verify a person’s legal status when they sought medical care. The bill would have mandated hospitals to report to law enforcement if a patient’s citizenship or legal status could not be verified.
Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a close ally of Pearce, said he’ll introduce what he describes as a scaled-down version of those defeated bills.
After the raft of immigration bills failed last session, Kavanagh tried to find a compromise to revive some provisions.
Along the way he said he discovered a lot of common ground with the senators who had balked at them, and that will likely be the basis of a “smaller compromise bill,” he said.
One thing appears likely — measures seeking to deny birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants are probably dead on arrival, if they even get introduced next year.
The two-bill package split the Republican caucus last session and was soundly defeated on the Senate floor.
Even Kavanagh said he sees a tough path for it in the Senate.
One chamber of commerce executive agreed.
“I don’t see that as something that’s going to go this year. I think that we’re probably looking at different types of measures if we’re going to see anything at all,” said Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. “I think that there’s not an appetite for that at this point.”
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Many view illegal immigration and the state economy as connected, with the former contributing to the latter’s woes.
But amid a cacophony of very real economic worries, it appears it will be a tough sell to persuade policymakers that spending a lot of energy on the illegal immigration issue would jumpstart Arizona’s economy or resolve the state’s budget woes.
“When you look at what’s happening right now and what we need to do to address the current downturn, we have a lot to look at and certainly the top thing on the list would not be immigration,” Sanders said.
Opposition from business interests to the failed immigration bills last session helped seal their fate.
Dozens of CEOs of major companies, for example, wrote the Senate to say Arizona should instead be lobbying for federal action and that “unintended consequences” like boycotts occur when the state goes it alone.
Lawmakers would likely face pressures of similar intensity in 2012.
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But what could immediately set back the anti-illegal immigration agenda is the outcome of the recall election against Pearce, who is the author of SB1070, the state’s landmark immigration bill that has spurred legislation in other states.
If Pearce is defeated, illegal immigration hawks would lose a true champion, and that could have serious implications for strict enforcement-type proposals.
“Russell has led the charge for the last several years, and he has proposed bold legislation,” said Sen. John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who was among several GOP members who balked at the birthright citizenship legislation.
“If he has won and he’s here in January, then I think we could expect to see more bold legislation on that issue,” he said. “And if he’s not here, I expect we’ll still see some legislation, but I think it may be a little more modified and a little less bold.”
Many Capitol observers said they don’t believe Pearce’s recall election will have a chilling effect on other legislators.
They pointed out that his situation is unique since he is the most identifiable anti-illegal immigration lawmaker, which makes it easier to caricature him and paint him as a bogeyman.
Additionally, a recall, which entails gathering a high rate of valid signatures, remains extremely difficult to achieve, they said.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City and the author of the birthright citizenship legislation, said those who are seeking to oust Pearce want to “instill fear” among lawmakers to try to get them to stop running more anti-illegal immigration measures.
If Pearce lost, such legislation could be chilled some, Gould said.
“There might be some people who might then be concerned that they might lose their seat in the same way,” he said, emphasizing that he is not one of those lawmakers who would be concerned about being recalled.
But the flip side is that lawmakers would probably be emboldened if Pearce won, since his victory would mean voters have reaffirmed their support for his views, Gould said.
Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill cautioned that while people are certainly worried about the economy, the right spark could make illegal immigration a very dominant issue once more in the upcoming election.
“It’s almost like a forest or a field that’s dried out in the summer,”
he said. “It doesn’t take much of a spark to really ignite it.”