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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This near hysteria about what is for the most part just an army of litterers obscures some important truths. First, because of the economic downturn, migration rates were down even before SB 1070; the border patrol's Tucson Sector made 24% fewer apprehensions in fiscal 2009 than in fiscal 2008. Second, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are deeply enmeshed in Arizona. Calling for the heads of all illegals has driven huge numbers of Arizonans from the public square but not back over the border. According to Merrill, up to 30% of undocumented Arizonans live in mixed-status families — that is, with a spouse, child or sibling who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident. Given that Arizona is destined to become a Hispanic-majority state sometime in the next three decades, that's a large number of the state's legal future residents whose relatives are now being hunted by the state in word and deed.

Clarisa Flores, an undocumented Tucsonan, told me that the "violence of the language is rising" against her and others. Her "fantasy," she says, is to "raise awareness, so people can understand us and not just attack and judge us." I also spoke with Marta Muñoz, an undocumented mother of three who has lived in Tucson for 16 years. She was detained after a highway stop and spent nearly a week in jail; her case is now before a judge. The impact of this "bitter experience," says Muñoz, is that her 10-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, has become more withdrawn and fearful about her life. "She's having nervous problems," says Muñoz. "She thinks every time I leave for the store, I'm never coming back." Muñoz's husband, who worked for years building the houses that fed Tucson's growth, is now in the black market of day labor, doing yard work or whatever he can find. But Muñoz can't bring herself to uproot her daughter from the only place she's ever known. "She has dreams, American dreams," says Muñoz. "I can't rob those from her."

There's too much anger in the state for the politicians to see that Muñoz's daughter is part of the future of Arizona. And not only her but also the thousands of citizens like her. So when the lawmakers decided to cut dropout-prevention programs — the Hispanic dropout rate is particularly abysmal — they may have fulfilled a campaign promise, but they also dented Arizona's prospects.

Another important truth lost in the noise is that there are reasonable law-enforcement activities that can specifically target that minority of foreign nationals who are dangerous criminals. On the day of the State of the Union speech, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona announced the bust of a gun-smuggling ring that bought hundreds of AK-47s in Phoenix-area gun shops and carried them into Mexico.

The raids were the product of exactly the kind of tough, precise policy that Giffords championed when it came to the drug cartels; a bill she co-sponsored with a California Republican last year gave law enforcement important new tools for cracking down on the cash cards that smugglers used to launder money. But in the din of Arizona border politics, hardly anyone noticed.

Giffords' was not the only empty chair for the State of the Union address. Georgia Republican Representative Paul Broun, who had called the idea of Democrats and Republicans sitting together a "trap," watched the speech from his office and cast stones at Obama through Twitter. "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution," he wrote toward the end of the speech. "You believe in socialism."

So the State of the Union was really the state of two absentees, who represent two vastly different ideas about politics and political discourse. Broun, like so much of the Arizona legislature, is confrontational, unapologetic. Giffords was never much for grandstanding, nor was she particularly good at it (as her anemic p.r. campaign for her cash-card bill showed). Mainly, she looked for sensible solutions and tried to make them work. Let's just hope her silence continues to be louder than all the shouting, in Arizona and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

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