Discontent Over Illegals in Arizona

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Discontent Over Illegals in Arizona

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By: Wood, Daniel B.

Date: October 20, 2004

Source: Wood, Daniel B. "Discontent Over Illegals in Arizona." The Christian Science Monitor (October 20, 2004).

About the Author: Daniel B. Wood is a Staff Writer for the Christian Science Monitor, an international daily newspaper.


The issue of illegal immigration into the United States reached a critical political point in 1994 in California with Proposition 187, a ballot initiative designed to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing health care services, education, employment, or any form of social service assistance from government agencies. The law included specific actions for various social and health services, such as the following for education:

For each child who cannot establish legal status in the United States, each school district shall continue to provide education for a period of ninety days from the date of the notice. Such ninety day period shall be utilized to accomplish an orderly transition to a school in the child's country of origin. Each school district shall fully cooperate in this transition effort to ensure that the educational needs of the child are best served for that period of time.

Other politicians and activists in border states such as Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico watched Proposition 187's journey with great interest.

Then-Governor Pete Wilson supported California's Proposition 187, and on November 8, 1994, the voters of California passed the ballot initiative with 59 percent of the vote. Wilson's approval ratings deteriorated quickly, largely as a result of his support for the legislation; many Hispanic voters quickly withdrew their allegiance to him and political analysts determined that approval of the Republican party among Hispanics suffered as a result of Proposition 187. Lawmakers and politicians in other border states viewed illegal immigration as a politically dangerous issue and retreated from cracking down on illegal immigration for some time.

In 1998, most of Proposition 187 was ruled unconstitutional, and newly-elected Democratic Governor Grey Davis let the law die out during mediation. The law's stringent withdrawal of social services from undocumented workers and immigrants, however, was appealing to many citizens and taxpayers in states that border Mexico, such as Arizona.

Proposition 200 in Arizona proposed limits on services that undocumented immigrants could access legally, with provisions that were similar to California's Proposition 187. In 2004, when the following article was written, the Minutemen Border Patrol, an all-volunteer border monitoring organization that stations armed volunteers along the border to call federal agents regarding illegal border crossings, was gaining momentum as part of the fight against illegal immigration. School systems struggled to incorporate children of undocumented immigrants, with a huge percentage of such students unable to speak English when enrolled in classes. Arizona spent more than $1 billion in social services for undocumented workers, placing a huge strain on state resources and provoking Proposition 200.


Prop. 200 on the state's ballot proposes limiting public benefits for the undocumented.

PHOENIX— At a suburban job center here where about 100 day laborers are lined up for work, Antonio Laguna speaks while his colleagues—illegal immigrants all—nod approval. "We help make this economy run smoothly, but now they want to crack down on us," says Mr. Laguna, husband and father of four who works for about $350 a week.

Outside a Wal-Mart downtown Judy Martinez, a third-generation Mexican-American, explains why legal American citizens like herself feel the time for a tougher approach has come. "They take jobs from legal citizens, and use up social services," notes Ms. Martinez, who says her own daughter Ciara has been passed over for several jobs given to illegals. "At the same time they drive up crime all over the city."

The two comments encapsulate an immigration controversy that is raising debate to decibel levels not heard since California's Prop. 187 tried to deny social services to illegals a decade ago.

Arizona's Proposition 200, on the Nov. 2 ballot wants state and local governments to verify the identity and immigration status of all applicants for certain public benefits, and to require government employees to report violations. It also asks proof of US citizenship for every person who registers to vote and for every voter to show ID at polls. Pollsters say citizens support it (by 42 percent to 29 percent, in a new poll), while public officials, Democratic and Republican leadership, and churches do not.

However the vote turns out, observers say the sheer intensity of concern here is symbolic of discontent that is growing in border and immigrant-rich Western states about the level of illegal immigration—and how little action is being taken by politicians nationally to stop it.

"There is a disconnect between politicians and the people," says Bruce Merrill, a pollster at Arizona State University, who has gotten more questions on this issue than any other over three decades of polling. He says many people want something done about the problem, but politicians are often afraid to act out of fear of alienating an increasingly powerful Hispanic voting bloc. Many people cite the steep drop in approval for California's former Gov. Pete Wilson and the California Republican Party after the passage there of the get-tough Prop. 187 in 1994 as evidence of what can happen. The GOP suffered a loss of Hispanic voters as a result.

"I think leaders here informally looked at California and saw what happened," he says. "Hispanics are 25 percent of the population now, but will be 40 percent in 10 to 12 years. So the strategy has been to not put things on the ballot that will motivate Hispanics."

Prop. 200 will provide the latest litmus test of how deep the public's discontent is over illegal immigration across the nation's southern border. Attitudes about the problem have hardened in recent years in some states, both out of concern about the economic impact, particularly in a time of slow job growth, and out of concern about the security threat posed since 9/11.

To be sure, the federal government has tried to stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming across the border with high-profile crackdowns in places like San Diego and southern Texas. Now the front-line battle is shifting to Arizona, where the border remains porous.

The concern over illegal immigration has intensified as the federal government has shifted more of the cost and control of welfare benefits to the states—further burdening state budgets. "Other states will be looking at whether this [Prop. 200] is a failure or a success so they can model theirs after what Arizona is doing," says Shirley Gunther, an analyst for ThinkAZ, an Arizona public policy group.

As in immigration policy battles of the past, propaganda wars are already afoot, delineating the costs and advantages that immigrants bring to the economy. Some anti-immigrant groups say they siphon more than $1 billion a year in social services from the Arizona treasury—$700 per family in the state. "Arizona has a serious problem on its hands in paying $1.3 billion a year in services to illegals," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which helped gather signatures to qualify the initiative. "All [the state is] trying to do is provide a check to see if people are eligible to receive the benefits they are applying for."

But ASU's Merrill and other analysts question the $1.3 billion figure. "No research or statistics are available to make that claim," he says.

And there is the usual battle over what the proposition actually says and does, as well as the motives of supporters and detractors. Backers say passage will help the state by preventing illegal immigrants from receiving benefits they don't qualify for. They also say a separate provision of Prop. 200 will prevent voter fraud by keeping illegals from registering to vote.

Critics say Prop. 200 will do nothing to prevent illegals from crossing the border, but will only make it harder for citizens to vote. They also say it will be costly to implement, by requiring the processing of documentation (driver's license, passport, birth certificate) by registered voters.

Analysts at ThinkAZ say both sides are taking advantage of the measure's complexity to confuse voters. They also say the measure is written in such a way as to keep some key points vague. "Prop. 200 does not include a definition of the public benefits which it says are covered by the new law," says Ms. Gunther—an omission she says could require the intervention of either the state legislature or the courts if approved. She also says the measure does not remove federally mandated public benefits for illegals such as emergency healthcare, immunizations, and K-12 public education.

"They are trying to scare us into leaving the country," says Leonardo Flores, a 19-year-old in line at the labor center. "It's a cheap tactic to fool the very people who are doing the work of this state that others don't want to do."


Proposition 200 requires proof of citizenship for voters and for access to state and local benefits. Unlike the California Proposition 187, the law does not restrict undocumented persons' access to education or healthcare. However, as the article notes, Proposition 200 is vague on key points, and would, like Proposition 187, spend a lengthy period of time being dissected by court judges seeking to determine the intent and scope of the law.

Federal and state politicians have found themselves at odds with each other regarding policy as well. President George W. Bush has supported a worker amnesty program and guest worker documents for Mexicans to come to the United States legally to work in agriculture and service industries. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain stated that unskilled laborers—many undocumented—do work that American citizens refuse to perform, at wages that help to sustain the U.S. economy. Opponents of such arguments, including state and local lawmakers and education administrators, point to the artificial suppression of wages caused by illegal immigration, job loss for citizens, and the strain that undocumented immigrants place on social service, education, and health care systems.

Voters passed Proposition 200 with fifty-six percent of the vote, and despite efforts to halt its implementation, the law went forward. Proposition 200 penalizes public officials and state workers who permit voting or access to state benefits from individuals without checking for immigration or citizenship documentation, with the state worker fined up to $700 for each offense.

President George W. Bush unveiled a new plan in May 2006 to send more than 6,000 National Guard troops to act as temporary border patrol agents and to train 3,000 new federal border patrol agents for service. Arizona lawmakers applauded the new program. In June 2006, the United States Congress considered legislation to change the standard "birthright citizenship" granted to those born in the United States. Undocumented immigrant women who enter the United States to give birth on U.S. soil have been accused by illegal immigration opponents of using these "anchor babies" to remain in the United States illegally. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, however, grants all persons born in the United States full citizenship rights; as of June 2006, the issue was still pending.

Competing economic analyses of undocumented immigrants' impact on Arizona's economy reveal part of the divide in the immigration debate: The Federation for American Immigration Reform claims that undocumented immigrants cost the state of Arizona more than $1.3 billion each year, while the Wells-Fargo Thunderbird School of Management's report details a $318 million surplus generated by undocumented workers' tax payments that helps the Arizona economy.



Ellingwood, Ken. Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Haines, David W., and Karen E. Rosenblum, eds. Illegal Immigration in America: A Reference Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Yoshida, Chisato, and Alan Woodland. The Economics of Illegal Immigration. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.


Minuteman Project. 〈http://www.minutemanproject.com/default.asp?contentID=23〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

Salon.com. "The Angry Patriot." 〈http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/05/11/minuteman〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. 〈http://www.uscis.gov/graphics/index.htm〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).

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