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A turning point in the immigration debate?

Republicans who oppose Senate President Russell Pearce’s strict enforcement to confronting illegal immigration are quick to paint Jerry Lewis’s victory last Tuesday as a turning point in the debate in favor of a more nuanced solution to this complex problem. Eager to seize the momentum, they are creating a narrative for the whole nation. While they acknowledged that Pearce’s defeat to Lewis won’t necessarily roll back laws like Arizona’s SB1070, they believe it sends a signal to other Republicans that they can offer more pragmatic solutions without fearing a backlash.

“I am hopeful that this recall election is the turning point for conservative Republicans like us to understand that we’ve got to move to civility in the discourse of immigration reform,” declared Paul Bridges, the Republican mayor of Uvalda, Georgia. “We are confident that with this change… in your state will cause our state, and particularly the Southern states, to reconsider what we have done.”

Bridges is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a Georgia immigration law that is similar to SB1070. Last week, he took part in a telephone conference organized by the D.C.-based National Immigration Forum. Also among the panelists were Lewis, Utah’s Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.

The telephone briefing was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Utah Compact, which took effect a year ago this month. The compact says immigration is a federal issue, asks that local enforcement resources focus on criminal activities and not civil violations of federal code, opposes policies that “unnecessarily separate families” and acknowledges the economic contribution of immigrants.

It’s an approach that’s the opposite of that adopted by states like Arizona, who are left to deal with illegal immigration absent action by the federal government.

During the telephone conference, Shurtleff said he hopes the message out of Arizona will resonate among national leaders, including those who are seeking the Republican presidential nomination. These leaders have to reassess who the Republican “base” is, he said. “That’s been a problem, obviously, across the country with elected officials thinking because they hear kind of a loud, shrill minority on this issue that that is the base of the Republican Party. The great news coming out of Arizona…(is) that conservative Republicans are now stepping up and saying, ‘This is not who we are as a party,’” he said.

Lewis, a charter school executive, defeated Pearce in a historic recall election on Nov. 8. But the practical implications of Lewis’s victory are likely to be more limited in the short term. First off, Pearce leaves the state Capitol with a body of anti-illegal immigration that is largely intact. Lewis’s entry into the picture won’t produce enough votes to repeal them.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio earlier told the Capitol Times he’ll simply continue enforcing laws that Pearce championed. Additionally, Pearce’s allies will likely fiercely resist any efforts to advance an agenda that’s diametrically opposed to what Pearce fought for. The fact is there are enough of them in the Legislature to stop such efforts from going anywhere. In short, Lewis may bring a different tone to the immigration discussion. But whether that progresses to anything more than just another discussion remains to be seen.

Then there’s the question of Lewis’s himself and what he can accomplish at the state Capitol in the next few months. The political neophyte has allies in the Legislature, but he gained influential enemies when he took on Pearce. There are enough of them to block any legislation he introduces.

Finally, only time will tell whether the factors that created Lewis’s victory resulted from an actual shift in the public’s attitude toward illegal immigration.

In summary, there is no doubt that Pearce’s defeat is a huge political victory for those who oppose his strict-enforcement approach to confronting illegal immigration. Their next job is to translate this victory into something tangible, and that, inevitably, is a much harder challenge.

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