The national mood on immigration has changed dramatically since Arizona approved a first-of-its-kind immigration law, igniting a furor over border security and the country’s treatment of immigrants.
A mere three years later, President Barack Obama and Republicans and Democrats in Congress are lobbying for the nation’s first immigration overhaul in nearly three decades — and public opinion is on their side.
The remarkable and almost shocking shift has renewed debate in Arizona and other states opposed to mass immigration about whether it’s time to double down or back off.
Arizona’s law drew international complaints of unlawful police scrutiny and inspired a handful of copycat policies across the country. The centerpiece of the measure requires police to question suspects about their immigration status, a provision that would be vastly undermined if millions of immigrants are able to obtain legal status.
“Arizona was, is and will always be concerned primarily about border security,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, one of the Republican architects behind the bill. “No matter how much they wish, they are not going to get the American people to turn their back on border security and the rule of law.”
Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and the author of Arizona’s immigration law, also remains an avid defender of “self-deportation” policies as the best defense against illegal immigration.
“Arizona has proven if you ratchet up the penalties people comply,” Kobach said Monday during a Senate hearing on immigration.
The proposed immigration overhaul would allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country and extend legal rights for some 11 million immigrants already here. It also seeks to strengthen border security and includes stiff penalties for illegal immigration, signs that Arizona’s legacy of tough enforcement lives on.
But the rhetoric against illegal immigration has become much more polite since 2010 when the fervor was at a climax and Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070. Then, a national campaign to end birthright citizenship warned of Asian and Hispanic mothers darting across borders to empty their wombs on U.S. soil. Candidates ran for the U.S. House with TV spots featuring menacing Mexicans. There was talk of kidnappings, gangs, drug cartels and desert beheadings.
These days, both of Arizona’s Republican U.S. senators are among those leading the immigration overhaul effort, the Arizona state lawmaker who created the landmark immigration law was forced out by voters and the proposal advancing in Congress would grant legal status to most immigrants illegally in the country.
“We are looking at a major shift in public opinion,” said Tony Payan of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Texas. “It took us all by storm.”
Republicans and Democrats alike say the turning point was the November elections, when Hispanic and Asian voters overwhelmingly swept Obama into a second term after years of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the GOP and just months after the Obama administration announced an unprecedented policy allowing young immigrants to seek legal status.
While Republican President George W. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, Romney received 27 percent Hispanic support, less than any presidential candidate in 16 years.
“If we pass this bill, I don’t think we gain a single Hispanic vote immediately,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain when unveiling the national immigration legislation last week. “What it does is it puts us on a level playing field to compete for those votes.”
America has a long history of suspicion toward immigrants, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director for the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. Nearly two decades ago, most Americans considered immigrants a burden on the country. In March, only 41 percent of Americans said they still felt that way, Lopez said.
Young, liberal voters are shaping public opinion, but so are Hispanics, who comprised 16.3 of the population in 2010, up from 12.5 percent in 2000. In all, more than 40 million Hispanic will be eligible to vote in 2030, according to Pew data.
A steady decline in illegal immigration since 2006 and a gradual economic recovery that put the national unemployment rate at a four-year low in March have also influenced changes in the immigration debate.
“People are really tired of the issue and they want it to go away,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow specializing in immigration policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The recognition that it is better to know who is living in our country and to bring them out of the shadows, so that all workers benefit, seems to resonate with people.”
In recent months, state lawmakers across the country have debated extending rights to immigrants living in the country illegally, including greater access to higher education and driver’s licenses.
Democratic state Sen. Steve Gallardo has worked for years to overturn Arizona’s immigration law, but he has largely been ignored by the Republican-led Legislature. The conversation in Washington is a sign that the state law has a dim future, Gallardo said.
“This is what America wants,” he said of comprehensive immigration reform.
But public sentiment on immigration could easily turn again with a change in the economy or an overreach by Congress, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the proposed national overhaul.
“If you went through the provisions of 1070, most Americans would still support them,” Mehlman said.
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