San Diego Union Tribune

October 16, 2004

2004 VOTE
Arizona's Prop. 200 is dividing a state


PHOENIX – Donna Neill's home boasts a wall full of plaques from government agencies and businesses hailing her work on behalf of her central city neighborhood.

A 6-foot-tall mother-bear of a woman, she is a volunteer organizer against gangs, graffiti and negligent landlords, and for a new park for children of immigrant families who have poured in over the past decade, mostly from Mexico.

But now Neill is lining up against the Arizona establishment – its congressional delegation, top state officials, the mayors of its principal cities, and the leaders of its churches and chambers of commerce – by supporting a ballot initiative that targets illegal immigration.

"We're sending a message that it's time to pay attention to what this is doing to us," said Neill, 58.

She ticked off a list of problems in Phoenix that she ties to an influx of poor, unskilled immigrants: crowded schools that breed gangs and domestic violence, garages converted to two-family apartments, and home additions hastily improvised in violation of housing codes that go unenforced by an overwhelmed city bureaucracy.

"We've got more problems than we can handle, and this has to stop," Neill said. "There needs to be some rules. What we've got now is just chaos. We're losing the simple things that make a society a society, but no one wants to step forward because they're afraid of crossing some line and being called a racist."

A decade after images of illegal immigrants dashing across the border into San Diego helped fuel California's Proposition 187, immigration anxiety is slashing a new political divide in the Grand Canyon State, where the undocumented population has quadrupled from the 88,000 estimated by federal officials in 1990.

Census figures show Arizona's Hispanic population jumped 88 percent in the 1990s, doubling the non-Hispanic growth rate.

Fueled by illegal immigration, that growth has gained momentum in the first years of the new millennium.

And so a debate is raging over Proposition 200, which would require proof of legal status from anyone applying for a "public benefit" or registering to vote.

While advocates like Neill describe the measure as a primal scream of protest aimed at timid politicians, opponents such as Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard warn that it would be a self-inflicted wound for a state whose future hinges on successfully integrating its immigrant population.

"It's the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot to get attention," said Goddard, adding that the proposition would do nothing to stop illegal immigration. "People come here for work, not for benefits."

Like a host of other government officials, Goddard cautions that the prohibition on public benefits for illegals could be seen as denying access to parks or libraries, or even the services of the fire department, dangerously isolating undocumented immigrants from the rest of society.

The initiative's authors made sure the ban did not include any federally mandated services – such as elementary and high school education and emergency medical care – that a federal court cited in striking down California's Proposition 187.

But Arizona's top health officer warns that Proposition 200 could "force sick individuals underground," potentially spawning a devastating epidemic.

Gov. Janet Napolitano says the state would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to verify immigration status.

The latest poll shows 42 percent of voters support Proposition 200, with 29 percent opposed and 29 percent undecided.

The poll, conducted by the Social Research Laboratory at Flagstaff's Northern Arizona University, surveyed 594 voters and has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points. That's less support than a mid-July poll conducted by a different organization, which showed a strong majority favoring the measure.

The PAN initiative has made the state a national immigration battleground for groups that do much of their work on Capitol Hill.

"If it's passed, it would be a launching pad for similar initiatives in other states," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the petition drive that put it on the ballot.

Meanwhile, the Service Employees International Union, which draws many of its members from immigrant workers, has sent volunteers into the fray. And the National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights group, has sounded a national alarm.

"If Proposition 200 is approved, any person who appears or seems to be an immigrant, no matter if they have been here five generations or five years, would be treated with suspicion every time they use any public service," according to La Raza Executive Director Janet Murguia.

When Alfredo Gutierrez was growing up in a copper-mining town in the mountains east of Phoenix, he was muzzled for speaking the language of his Mexican immigrant mother.

"The teachers put tape on our mouths for speaking Spanish," said Gutierrez, a former member of the state Senate who is now the most outspoken Hispanic critic of Proposition 200.

His fund raising to try to defeat PAN included a September trip to Los Angeles, where he received pledges of support from businesses such as Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America, which actively court immigrant customers.

Gutierrez, 59, said he recognized that non-Hispanics had to be the most visible public faces in the push to defeat Proposition 200.

"We knew that if this was going to work, it had to have a face other than Mexican Americans," Gutierrez said, speaking of a campaign that generated $1.5 million for a 30-day media blitz that began in early October.

The campaign's most prominent faces, including Republican Sen. John McCain, are Anglo leaders who said that PAN would hurt the state and never achieve its goal of curtailing illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, Gutierrez warns that outsiders with racist intentions are trying to manipulate Arizona voters.

His Exhibit A is Virginia Abernethy, an emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University and self-declared "separatist."

Abernethy serves on the advisory board of the Occidental Quarterly, a publication whose "statement of principles" includes a declaration that immigration to the United States "should be restricted to selected people of European ancestry."

Abernethy was named to the PAN national advisory board by Kathy McKee, an author of Proposition 200 who describes herself as "a Quaker Sunday school teacher and Buddhist meditation teacher."

Gutierrez said he understands the immigration anxiety in Arizona, which over the past year has been stunned by a crime wave spawned by the lucrative traffic in illegal immigration.

There was a rash of shootouts among the traffickers, including a double murder on a street corner six blocks from Neill's house. A man and a woman were gunned down as they sat in their car in a commercial zone thick with Spanish-language signs, as well as the check cashing stores, pay-day-advance loan shops, "dollar" stores and rent-to-own furniture marts that are immigrant entry points to the cash economy.

Frank Pierson, director of the Arizona Interfaith Network, said the violence has distorted the debate over illegal immigration.

"The anger should be directed at the criminals, not at people who come here to work," he said.

His organization has encouraged local churches to bring in immigrants to tell their stories of sacrifice and of dedication to hard work and family.

"When that happens," Pierson said, "there's a real connection between people."

At a time when economic forecasters at the University of Arizona report that the state's biggest challenge may well be the looming shortage of skilled workers, Attorney General Goddard says Arizona needs to invest more in its schoolchildren, who increasingly come from immigrant families.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education reports that Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to drop out of school between grades 7 and 12.

Pessimism about the unceasing flow of immigrants from Latin America is fueling the anxiety that drives the PAN movement.

There is a widespread panic about demographic and economic forces that are drawing more Arizonans to the wrong side of a widening gap between rich and poor.

"One day we're going to wake up and wonder what the heck happened," Neill said.

She said there needs to be a focus on the decline of Phoenix neighborhoods, in addition to the deaths of hundreds of migrants who illegally cross the borderlands desert.

"That's a tragedy," she said of the deaths. "But we've got another tragedy right here, every day, all around us.

Her husband, Jerry, added: "This has nothing to do with racism. We're not against the immigrants. We're just tired of having illegal immigration rammed down our throats."

Gutierrez said the United States and Mexico should agree to a joint effort to control the cross-border flow – as part of a comprehensive deal that legalizes those who are already here.

He said Hispanic immigrants "are going to reinvigorate this country," repeating the success of previous immigrant groups whose arrivals were met with foreboding and predictions of doom.

"We need to lift people up, give them a chance to regularize their lives and make a full contribution to this society," Gutierrez said. "Proposition 200 won't do that. It will just push them further down."

»Next Story»