As Election Looms, Observers Are Watching AZ Immigration Law Case Closely
On the eve of crucial midterm elections, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear arguments over whether to reinstate key parts of an Arizona immigration bill that has seeped through the electoral politics of this border state and beyond.
While the impact of SB 1070 was partially limited by a federal judge last summer, its repercussions have been widespread, from creating new political capital for Arizona conservatives to inspiring a wave of more than 20,000 Latinos to register to vote.
On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), which sued to stop the law from taking effect, will try to persuade a three-judge panel in San Francisco to keep the injunction in place. Governor Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070 into law, is financing the cost of the appeal through a Border Security and Immigration Legal Defense Fund that has received more than $3 million in contributions from across the country.
DOJ attorneys will likely argue that federal law pre-empts enforcement of state laws on immigration. Those arguments won the day in July, when U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton barred key parts of SB 1070 from taking effect, including a provision that would have made being an undocumented immigrant a state crime, subject to incarceration, and critics said it would lead to racial profiling.
Political observers and attorneys involved in the eight lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of SB 1070 say there is little chance the appeals court will rule on Monday, so it is unlikely the hearing will have any bearing when voters go to the polls.
Brewer Made “Right Calculation”
“I think 1070 changed the field of engagement so much that it made Brewer the heroine of the ride,” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former Democratic state senator and editor of La Frontera Times, a website focused on nationwide immigration issues that has been critical of the bill. “Politically speaking, she made the right calculation by signing it.”
Brewer, who is running for re-election, will be attending the 9th Circuit hearing in the company of GOP attorney general candidate Tom Horne. Horne, the current state schools superintendent, also was a major supporter of a bill to ban the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona. Brewer signed that bill into law in May.
“If the federal government wants to be in charge of illegal immigration and they want no help from states, it then needs to do its job,” Brewer said in a statement. “Arizona would not be faced with this problem if the federal government honored its responsibilities.”
The current attorney general, Terry Goddard, a Democrat who is running against Brewer for governor, held a press conference on Sunday, taking some jabs at his opponent. The legal defense of any state bill challenged in court falls on the attorney general’s office, but Goddard decided to step aside after disagreements with Brewer’s legal team in June. Brewer said at the time that she didn't believe Goddard could defend the measure because his opposition represented a conflict of interest, and she hired a private firm to do the job.
“It does surprise a little bit she is there at all, because if I remember correctly, San Francisco is one of the cities that is boycotting the state of Arizona over Senate Bill 1070,” said Goddard, who running slightly behind Brewer in the latest polls. “Apparently, if she gets publicity, she puts aside the concern about the boycott.”
Goddard called on Brewer to address issues facing Arizona rather than leave the state on the eve of important elections. Specifically, he urged her to conduct an exhaustive investigation into security conditions at private prisons in the state, in the wake of the escape of three inmates from a privately run prison in Kingman, Ariz., last July who have been accused in the murder of a New Mexico couple.
Goddard pointed to Brewer’s staff—including political advisor Chuck Coughlin, president of High Ground Public Affairs, which also represents Correction Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest private-prison company —as evidence that she is more concerned with helping private business make a profit than with public safety.
CCA administers most private jails for immigration detention in Arizona.
NPR Investigation Links 1070 to Private-Prison Group
A National Public Radio investigation last week shed more light on the private-prison industry having a hand in the crafting of SB 1070 and giving monetary contributions to the 36 sponsors of the bill, including its main proponent, state Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa).
According to the NPR investigation, SB 1070 was largely conceived and drafted by a conservative business lobbying group in Washington, D.C., called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, whose board members include state and federal elected officials as well as representatives of CCA. Pearce is one of the state legislators on ALEC’s board.
According to the NPR report, ALEC, and particularly CCA, played a pivotal role in conceiving, writing and naming the law that would become SB 1070.
Some political observers in Arizona said NPR investigation is likely to have only have a marginal impact on how state voters cast their ballots on November 2.
“I don’t think people who support 1070 and support Pearce care about that,” said Daniel Ortega, a civil rights attorney involved in one of the challenges to SB 1070 on behalf of Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). “I think that the xenophobia, the hate, and the desire to control immigration is much greater than the profit they could make for it.”
Opposition to 1070 Hurting Some Politicians
While SB 1070 has catapulted Brewer and Pearce into the national spotlight, recent polls suggest that the bill is also taking a toll on politicians who opposed it and who have called for a boycott of the state because of its stance on illegal immigration, such as U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Tucson).
Some polls show that Grijalva—who has been in Congress for eight years—is running neck in neck with 28-year-old Republican Ruth McClung, a Tea Party favorite who has been endorsed by Sarah Palin.
“I seriously doubt Grijalva is in any trouble,” said La Frontera Times editor Gutierrez, who believes that intensive voter registration drives among Latinos will make a difference.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “[Usually,] when you go register voters, you try to talk them into it. This time, we stand in front of Ranch Market [a local grocery store] and people get in line to register or to get into early voting.”
Other voter registration groups, such as Mi Familia Vota, have reported that more than 80 percent of newly registered voters cited SB 1070 as a reason they signed up.
SB 1070’s impact has gone beyond Arizona races as the law has become part of the national immigration debate in races like the hotly contested one between Sharron Angle, Nevada’s Republican candidate for Senate, who has denounced incumbent Sen. Harry Reid over his opposition to SB 1070.
“I think 1070 has become the symbol of how far you can go as a state,” said Margie Omero, Democratic pollster and analyst for Momentum Analysis in Washington, D.C. “They just know that SB 1070 in Arizona is a synonym for being tough.”