The Politics of Arizona's Great Divide

Big rifts, bigger challenges. Can the state heal in time?

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Photograph by Zed Nelson

Vigil Arizona's long border is the source of fear — and opportunity

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That's how you get statesmen like Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who is now the president of the senate and perhaps the most powerful politician in the state. In 2009 the budgetary meltdown was already in its second year, but Pearce doggedly championed legislation that would force Obama, whom he describes as waging "jihad" against Arizona, to provide proof of his citizenship (it was tabled after being ridiculed around the country). In 2010, Pearce turned to immigration with SB 1070, a bill seemingly purpose-built to provoke not only controversy but also a lengthy court battle, thereby sapping both prestige and resources from a state that needs more of both. This year, the No. 2 priority after the budget, says Pearce, will be legislation calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment, the one that grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil. This, of course, is not anywhere near the jurisdiction of the Arizona legislature.

Governor Brewer and much of the GOP supermajority in the house and senate have responded to the fiscal crisis by preemptively promising that they won't raise taxes under any circumstances, even though the broader electorate voted last year to raise taxes on themselves to fund education. The legislature's atonal pledge leaves it only two options: find revenue through shell-game accounting and make drastic cuts in social services. Lawmakers sold their own capitol in Phoenix to a private buyer and then leased it back — money for now, but costly in the long run. They looted lottery earnings earmarked for local transportation and tried to do the same with cigarette-tax money meant for early-childhood health and education programs (voters rejected that attempt in November). House Democrats, for their part, railed about $10 billion in "outrageous tax loopholes" for Republicans' "rich, special-interest friends": they were mostly referring to the fact that the sales tax, by design, applies only to retail goods. That's the law, not a loophole.

Nevertheless, the governor's cuts to services and programs have been myopic. The state invited plenty of criticism when it began denying coverage last year for lifesaving transplants to some Medicaid patients. On Jan. 25, Brewer formally requested waivers from the federal government to trim Medicaid rolls even further "despite already painful reductions," her office said. A host of other cuts not only diminish Arizona today but also hurt the economic future of the state. School librarians are gone, college counselors scarce. State funding for all-day kindergarten was eliminated, along with some dropout-prevention programs. Child Protective Services caseworkers have been furloughed. Expensive tuition-credit programs, however, which give tax breaks to both rich and poor families that send their kids to private schools, survived.

The Immigration Riddle

No issue presents as great a challenge — or has been met with as much asinine grandstanding — as immigration. It's not a fight that Arizona chose. Its long border with the Mexican state of Sonora is ruled by forces beyond Arizona's control: NAFTA, federal border prerogatives and the Mexican economy have all affected the inflow and outflow of people, guns and drugs across the desert.

There are parts of southern Arizona that are, in a way, martyred land. Ranchers and Tohono O'odham tribe members along the border feel besieged by piles of migrant trash, the heavy federal presence and armed drug runners. These Arizonans are paying the price for a failed and cynical federal policy, which fed the U.S. addiction for cheap labor while denying that the addiction existed. During the boom years, migrants knew they could find jobs working for Americans up north. They just had to trample Arizona's desert to get there. This was, for too long, the acceptable status quo for the federal government.

The problem is that Arizona has responded to a complicated crisis with what Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, calls a "bumper-sticker mentality." Senator John McCain, once an august brand in Arizona politics, claimed that illegals were intentionally causing traffic accidents on the freeways, a statement he later retracted. Even as crime rates fell in 2009, Brewer — a decent person with an indecent habit of pandering to the Pearce wing of the state's GOP — sounded similar alarms on a daily basis, calling the border a "battlefield" and bemoaning "the terror which our citizens live in day in and day out along the border."

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