Powerless in Arizona

Nogales, Arizona's largest city on the Mexican border, is situated about 70 miles south of Tucson, along a desert valley spotted with Spanish-era missions. Home to 20,000 people, 97 percent of whom are Hispanic, one would expect the city to be ground zero for impassioned demonstrations against SB 1070, the controversial immigration-enforcement law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer three weeks ago. But for the largely immigrant community here, the prevailing sentiment is one of resignation -- and fear for those relatives and friends who are here illegally.

"My friends and I used to go out to eat on Sundays, but now you're afraid of just going out on the street," says Maria, an undocumented immigrant who has worked as a housekeeper for over 20 years. (Maria asked that her name be changed to protect her identity.) "But that's the law here; what's there to do?"

Critics claim that SB 1070 -- which criminalizes undocumented presence in the state and requires police to question those suspected of being here illegally -- will lead to racial profiling of anyone who looks Hispanic. The law has been denounced by civil-rights activists across the country. Opposition has been mounting within the state as well: the Tucson and Flagstaff city councils recently pledged to sue over the new law, and various businesses have expressed concerns that a boycott will affect tourism.

But the paradox is that those whom SB 1070 affects most are the least empowered to reverse it. In a state with a 30 percent Hispanic population, just over 10 of the 90 members of the state Legislature are of Hispanic origin (all but one are Democrats). There has not been a Hispanic governor since Raul Castro in 1977.

The story of Hispanics' political powerlessness in Arizona is partly a story about big demographic trends. Since the 1990s, the state has seen an influx of two groups: white Midwesterners and undocumented workers from Mexico. The swell of Midwestern retirees and families to the Phoenix area follows a pattern of migration from post-industrial cities in the middle of the country to the Sun Belt, where the cost of living is lower and economic opportunities, more fruitful. In addition, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the rate of illegal immigration to the state jumped 70 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Experts say the influx of the two groups has led to a cultural clash and strengthened the conservative base in Maricopa County, which dominates state politics. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship, which left Democratic representatives -- who hail largely from Southern Arizona -- relatively powerless to stop SB 1070.

"[Midwestern immigrants] are less familiar with Latinos as a group, which partially explains the support for tough immigration laws," says John Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Indeed, in the past decade the state has taken an increasingly stringent approach to immigration enforcement. In 2004, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship at voting booths and in applying for social services. Legislators passed an "English only" law in 2006 and have also barred noncitizens – and even recent citizens – from receiving financial aid for higher education. Phoenix is also home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has gained notoriety for random immigration raids on businesses, and immigrant-detainee abuses.

In theory, these two demographics would both influence state-level policy. But the infrastructure for political participation by Hispanics doesn't exist in the same way it does for native-born Americans, the exceptions being states like California and Texas, which have more multigenerational Hispanic families and a larger percentage of eligible voters who are Hispanic. There is the obvious problem that about a quarter of Hispanics in Arizona are undocumented, but political participation is also low for citizens and permanent residents. Hispanics in Arizona – as well as nationwide -- are less likely than whites or African Americans to register to vote or participate in civic organizations. Only 17 percent of voters in the state are Hispanic.

Experts cite a number of reasons for Hispanics' lack of political engagement, including language barriers, low socioeconomic status, and lack of support organizations. And as a recent study by the Wilson Center for International Scholars suggests, even those organizations that do focus on involving Hispanics in the political process spend a lot of their time fending off anti-immigrant efforts.

In cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, unions and religious organizations have been instrumental in mobilizing Hispanics – for instance, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of the Los Angeles diocese has been one of the most outspoken critics of SB 1070. But Arizona has lower levels of unionization than California or Illinois, and there is a dearth of strong pro-immigrant voices from the religious community there.

In many ways, Arizona has reached the same crossroads California did a decade ago. In 1994, California passed Proposition 187, which sought to restrict public benefits to citizens and required public officials to verify immigration status. The law, which was overturned five years later, generated outrage nationwide, mobilized the fragmented Hispanic community in the state, and doomed California's Republican Party for decades to come.

The passage of SB 1070 may reflect the inordinate political power currently held by conservative, white Republicans, but if California is any indication, it's only a matter of time before the tables are turned in Arizona.

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