An Anti-Immigration Frenzy Fueled from Outside

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John Moore / Getty Images

Arizona conservatives listen to speeches denouncing illegal immigration in Phoenix on July 31, 2010

Robert Acheson has never been to Phoenix. His house, nestled amid the bucolic, forested hills of tiny Dixfield, Maine, is more than 2,800 miles away from the nation's illegal-immigration front lines. Still, the retired paper-mill worker says he decided to give $35 to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's 2012 re-election campaign this summer because Arpaio is "supporting America." "I'm very much against illegal immigration, and he seems to be against it too," Acheson, 65, says in a telephone interview. "And he seems to be the only guy who has the testosterone — the balls — to stand up to the federal government on this issue."

Donations from people like Acheson have fed the political frenzy surrounding illegal immigration and framed key Arizona debates, like the one Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and her Democratic opponent, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, engaged in on Wednesday in Phoenix. Having people outside of Arizona's borders help shape its border policy may be one of the state's great political ironies.

Senate Bill 1070, which Brewer signed into law on April 23, called for, among other things, allowing law enforcement officers to ask about someone's immigration status during a traffic-stop detainment or arrest if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the country illegally. In response to criticism that the law would promote racial profiling, Brewer created a legal defense fund to give the cops some cover. Now the fund has more than $2 million, a Brewer spokeswoman says, and much of that is coming from people outside Arizona. In-state contributors have accounted for $320,544, according to data on Contributions from California, Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Virginia have accounted for $703,171 — outspending Arizonans by more than 2 to 1. And that excludes money from the rest of the country, because people from all 50 states have donated.

Although more Arizonans have donated to the fund than residents of any other state, they have been eclipsed in per-capita giving. In-state contributors have given an average of $50.76 per person, while donors from Alaska, Wyoming and Hawaii have given $57.97, $55.83 and $52.05 per person, respectively. (On July 28, a federal judge temporarily blocked the most controversial parts of SB 1070 from taking effect.)

These aren't the only signs of outside influence in Arizona's illegal-immigration debate or in the political fortunes of its candidates. On Aug. 11, almost two weeks before Arizona's primary election, Sheriff Arpaio turned in campaign-finance reports that showed he had pulled in $480,669 over the summer, bringing his total to $2.3 million. Arpaio's campaign manager Chad Willems says the last official number-crunch they did on the numbers was six months ago, and at that time, 26% of the money was coming from Arizonans. The rest was from out of state. "If it's Arizona vs. the rest of the country," says Willems, "more funds flow to the Arpaio campaign from outside Arizona." A 50-page sample pulled from the most recent 1,354-page campaign-finance record shows an 80-20 split, with donors outside of Maricopa County having the larger presence.

The fundraising looks more like a major congressional campaign than a stumpfest for a local sheriff's office, and it's even more astonishing considering Arpaio is not up for re-election until 2012. He spent much of the new funds on advertising that pummeled his political opponents — even if they weren't running against him. Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Vietnam veteran and moderate Republican who has often clashed with Arpaio, says the attack ads cost him his job and run counter to donors' intentions for the money. "But the real factor was that I believe he illegally used the money to influence this election," Romley says. "It was really a fraud on the people who gave to his re-election campaign." County election officials agree. They ruled against Arpaio's use of the election funds for the attack ads, fined his campaign and, last week, gave his campaign 20 days to produce more documentation of the expenditures. The Arpaio campaign is appealing the ruling.

But with a national network of support — including people from places like Roach, Mo., and Ponce Inlet, Fla., who give $30 or $40 apiece — the impact of the local fines could be muted. And for some, it may seem like Arizona elections aren't truly "local" races these days. "Arizona is sort of a boiling point for a national movement," says David Berman, a senior research fellow and political science expert at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Even if that's true, the debate still originates in Arizona. It's just that standing up to the federal government on a key issue like illegal immigration moves Arizona's debates beyond its borders, says Arpaio campaign manager Willems. "Politics is always local, and it will always come down to local issues," Willems says. "[Arpaio] has just been elevated to a national stage."