Migrants-rights advocates started the week afraid Republican leaders in the House and Senate would ram through legislation to ask voters to enshrine a ban on sanctuary cities in the state Constitution in time for President Donald Trump to boast about it at a Wednesday rally mere blocks from the Capitol.
Instead, fewer than 24 hours after Air Force One left Phoenix, on the same day that a bipartisan group of Arizona lawmakers feted visiting legislators from Guanajuato, Mexico, the measure met an ignominious death, stripped from a House committee agenda without notice to the public.
Activists and Democratic lawmakers were relieved, if surprised: the referral was a key part of the Republican agenda, something Gov. Doug Ducey elevated in his State of the State address. And now, the night before a House version of the referral was set to pass through the Judiciary Committee, both versions of the bill were dead.
Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that was set to hear that chamber’s version, was thankful when he heard the news. The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, hadn’t even heard that her proposal was dead in the water. In short, this came as a surprise to most.
And yet, cracks in Ducey’s plan to pass a constitutional amendment that prevented local jurisdictions from limiting their cooperation with federal law enforcement had begun to show long ago.
Democratic lobbyists had heard rumblings that the plan might die. Rep. Tony Rivero, a Republican from Peoria, had said he would vote against a bill unless it came as part of a package of broader reforms. Losing a Republican in the House would be enough to stop it in its tracks. And in the Senate, votes from several Republicans who represent districts targeted by Democrats were up in the air.
Still, Senate President Karen Fann said Wednesday afternoon she had “no reason not to” bring Allen’s measure to the full floor for a vote. And Ducey was defensive when reporters questioned him mere hours before the measures died, saying “The economy is booming, and this was on the ballot in Tucson, it was widely rejected, and anything that goes forward would be up to the people. You’re living in the past.”
Rep. T.J. Shope, the sponsor of the House version of the referral, was as surprised as anyone.
“I woke up [Thursday] prepared to go to committee,” Shope said.
But by Thursday afternoon, it was clear something was afoot. Ducey Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato and governor’s office lobbyist Katie Fischer met Shope outside the chamber before scurrying inside, mum as to the purpose of his meeting.
This meeting was already scheduled, Shope said. It was supposed to be a time to chat strategy the day before the bill would get its hearing in Rep. John Allen’s House Judiciary Committee.
But a few minutes before they met, news broke in the Legislative Report, a sister publication of the Capitol Times, that Rivero was leaning no. This, in conjunction with lingering uncertainty about the votes of Sens. Paul Boyer, Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and Heather Carter, recontextualized the meeting.
“It was brought to me by the Governor’s Office and they wanted to gauge my opinion on it,” Shope said. “I felt it’s beyond our control.”
The first signs of a crack in the Republican base in the Senate came earlier this week, when Allen told her Republican colleagues during a Tuesday caucus meeting that she planned to amend her SCR 1007 to remove language barring not just cities, counties and towns but “political subdivisions” from refusing to comply with federal immigration law.
Critics said the language would force schools, public hospitals, universities and utility districts to enforce federal immigration law, including by detaining students or patients and providing customer information to immigration officers. Allen said that interpretation was wrong, but she would change the bill anyway.
“Staff said it didn’t apply but better (to amend the referendum) so the Left can’t say it does,” Allen texted.
And even some of her own Republican colleagues needed the change for the measure to win their support. Boyer, R-Glendale, said Thursday afternoon that he would vote for the “pared-down” version of the referendum, but not its original form.
Boyer, like Sens. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler; Brophy McGee and Allen herself, represents a district that’s a top target for Democrats. Another moderate Republican, Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has backed in-state tuition for young people who graduated from Arizona high schools but lack legal status, but she faces a primary challenge from the right in Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, and could have been compelled to support the measure to survive her own primary.
In the House, Rivero has close ties with Mexico, where he frequently leads trade delegations. And he’s skeptical of immigration hardliners in his caucus — he initially voted no on House Majority Leader Warren Petersen’s bill to allow private property owners to build border walls on their land without getting permits first.
Rivero said he wouldn’t vote for the sanctuary city referral, which he feared would do lasting harm to the state’s relationship with Mexico, unless Republicans also passed a variety of other broad-based immigration reforms including legalizing consular IDs and extending in-state tuition to students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status.
“I support border security,” Rivero said. “But my concern with this bill is, are we solving something? I think there’s missing components.”
But even Rivero was surprised by the death of the referral, he told the Capitol Times last night. He didn’t know of any other House Republicans who would vote no.
The usually cautious and calculated Governor’s Office was caught off guard by the reaction to the sanctuary city referral as well. Scarpinato said that the office’s decision to cut its losses on the legislation on Thursday was necessary, and that continuing to push for it would have risked it becoming a distraction that took focus away from the rest of their agenda. And mostly, it was about the votes.
“With any policy, the stars need to align to get it done, and on this one, we just came to the conclusion that the stars were not going to align,” Scarpinato said.
He said that concerns from the business community helped cement that decision.
“At the end of the day, 95 to 98 percent of what we want is already in law. We wanted to take it to 100%. And we decided it just wasn’t worth it.”
This has been one of the quirks of the debate since Ducey announced the referral in January — almost the whole time, Republicans have insisted on framing the referral as a needed but technical Constitutional amendment that would provide legal clarity, to the frustration of Democrats who branded the effort as Ducey’s SB1070, a divisive and wide-ranging 2010 measure aimed at giving the state more power to deal with the issue of illegal immigration.
“Shope yesterday went on the radio and said it wouldn’t change anything,” said Ben Scheel, a progressive consultant and campaign advisor to House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. “If it’s not gonna change anything, why the hell would you push it? That’s not a good argument for your legislation!”
The time of SB1070’s passage was marked with racial tension, daily protests at the Capitol, national media attention and boycotts of the state.
The death of the referral on Thursday shows that the Arizona that once approved SB1070 no longer exists, according to legislative Democrats and community activists who lauded its demise. Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said it proved Ducey “misread the people of Arizona.”
“Arizona has grown up since the times of SB1070, and the community is on alert,” he said. “The xenophobic attempt to try to energize the Republican base won’t succeed because it’s not the same kind of Republican base he had in 2010. We’re not going to go back to the dark days that made Arizona a laughingstock under Governor Brewer.”
In some ways, the past few weeks at the Capitol have seemed like a return to the era when SB1070 passed. Protesters disrupted two committee hearings — one on Allen’s proposal and one on proposed changes to election law — when Republican committee chairman Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, and Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, took offense to characterizations of the bills as “racist” and references to President Trump before silencing testimony.
Migrant-rights advocates who gathered on the House lawn Friday morning to celebrate their victory and galvanize opposition to other bills — including a measure that would allow anyone harmed by an undocumented immigrant convicted of a felony to sue a city that didn’t enforce immigration law — ended their press conference with chants of “¡Sí, se puede!” the United Farm Workers motto that became a rallying cry for immigrant rights activists.
And while those same activists credit behind-the-scenes lobbying by the business community, it’s hard to understate the role of Living United for Change in Arizona and other groups that formed in the fallout of SB1070 and have since grown stronger and more effective. LUCHA in particular has won a series of unlikely battles, from getting a statewide minimum wage hike passed to helping recall Sen. Russell Pearce, SB1070’s sponsor.
“So many emotions,” Tomas Robles, one of the organization’s leaders, said Friday morning. “We’re happy, relieved, but we’re remaining diligent about making sure these bills don’t creep up again.”
Ducey and legislative Republicans appear to have received a lot more resistance on the sanctuary city referendum than they expected, said Paul Bentz, vice president of strategy at High Ground Consulting.
Immigration remains the highest-priority issue for Republicans in Arizona, Bentz said, so the referral idea looked good on paper.
“I think they proposed these bills because they thought it would be a nice base-building exercise and they’d receive a lot of support for it,” Bentz said.
But Republicans don’t need sanctuary cities on the ballot to turn out to vote in November, GOP pollster George Khalaf said.
“Of course immigration and the issue of immigration would drive people to the polls,” Khalaf said. “The thing that I’ve been saying to folks, and we’ve got the survey numbers to prove it, is that I’m not sure how much Republican enthusiasm could increase.”
The death of the referral marks the end of a two-month saga that began in Ducey’s January State of the State Address, in which it was unveiled as one of several policy proposals that the governor would push through the legislature. Shope received a glowing shoutout. Republicans rose to their feet.
In the intervening period, Scarpinato said that just about everything has been a surprise.
“After six years in the Governor’s Office, not one day of my life up here has gone as I predicted,” he said.