How Arizona Dems Grappled With Immigration

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Demonstrators hold a banner as they protest against Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 immigration law outside the U.S. District Court in Phoenix July 22, 2010.

When the Democrats roared to victory in the House of Representatives in 2006 and then the White House in 2008, one electoral key was the party's newfound strength in states such as Arizona in the West. But a stagnant recovery, high unemployment and loads of economic pain have left many Western voters in a sullen, angry mood ready to lash out at the new majority in Congress. Now, the party must also contend with the fiery debate over SB1070, Arizona's tough new immigration law. On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked key provisions of the law from going into effect, but the legal appeals and political heat over SB1070 will continue to boil Arizona's campaign season.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled against the toughest provision of SB1070 — the one that would require police officers to ask people to prove that they are citizens or legal residents. Bolton barred the most controversial aspects of the law while allowing relatively innocuous provisions to go into effect on Thursday. Proponents of the law, including Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, vowed an immediate appeal. "This fight is far from over," she said. And the wrangling will sweep along Democrats fighting to hold on to their Congressional seats.

Three newbie Arizona representatives in Congress — Democrats Gabrielle Giffords from Tucson, Harry Mitchell from Scottsdale and Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents Flagstaff and the giant 1st District, an area larger than Pennsylvania — face a tough reelection season. In Arizona, as in much of the nation, the economy crashed hard. Rodd McLeod, Giffords' campaign manager says, "Arizona had one of the biggest booms and it's had one of the biggest busts."

When Giffords, Mitchell and Kirkpatrick return home for the August recess, each will have to calibrate what they say about immigration against the political realities of swing districts where they must reach out to conservative voters in order to win. Indeed, the three centrist Democrats have challenged President Obama's assertion that the border with Mexico is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years. "I was disappointed to hear the President give short shrift to border security concerns," said Rep. Giffords. Rep. Kirkpatrick agreed: "We need more than talk from the White House and Congress right now."

Illegal immigration, always an issue in the Southwest, turned white hot after rancher Rob Krentz was murdered near the border in March and the Arizona Legislature passed and Governor Brewer signed SB1070 into law. White Arizonans largely support the controversial new law while Latinos and liberal activists have been outraged by the prospect of American citizens being stopped and asked to prove that they are, in fact, citizens. Rep. Mitchell — who defeated John McCain's current GOP Senate primary challenger J. D. Hayworth in 2006 — says SB1070 is a "much-needed reminder to Washington to stop ignoring our needs in Arizona." Mitchell's nuanced position: "Neither the state law nor a lawsuit to overturn it will solve the problem, secure our border or fix a broken immigration system."

In her reelection bid in southeastern Arizona, Giffords is trying to frame the issue as one of border security. Arizonans are very aware that more than half of all illegal crossings over the U.S.-Mexico border happen in their state. Elected in 2006, Giffords likes to remind audiences that her first speech to Congress was on border security and that she pushed for a deployment of National Guard troops to her district and its 114-mile border with Mexico, where the rugged desert is a major crossing point for illegal immigrants. The President is deploying the National Guard at the border and they arrive Aug. 1. Giffords points out that Arizona will receive 524 of the 1,200 troops, more than any other state. Additional funding for border security ran aground in the Senate last Friday as deficit hawks, including Arizona Republican Senators McCain and Jon Kyl, voted down a request for $701 million in additional border security funding. Giffords, Krikpatrick and Mitchell supported the measure when it passed the House July 2.

The stance has paid some dividends. Last weekend, the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association presented Giffords with its public service award for her work to stop illegal crossings and target violent gangs smuggling drugs. In a Giffords television ad, one of the ranchers stares into the camera and says, "Gabrielle Giffords gets it" about border security.

"Security has to come first," Giffords said in a recent speech to Tucson community leaders. "Until we show serious improvement with border security, we won't have the political and bipartisan will necessary to fix our immigration laws." She said she opposes SB1070, saying the new law "does absolutely nothing to secure the border." At the same time, she cast the U.S. Department of Justice's decision to try to stop SB1070 in the courts as a "waste of resources." Echoing Mitchell, she says SB1070 is a cry for help and that President Obama needs to act.

Giffords' possible challenger is not impressed. Jonathan Paton, who must first win the Republican primary, voted for SB1070 in the Arizona Legislature. "Giffords has ignored the border and done nothing," says Paton campaign manager Daniel Scarpinto. He says that Paton will make illegal immigration and border security the number one issue of the fall campaign. If he does get to run against her in November, it will be a contest not just based on issues. When they were much younger, Paton and Gifford once dated. Now they are implacable political foes.