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A Year Later, Arizona Still Split Over Immigration

It's been a year since Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the tough immigration bill known as SB 1070. The law made it a state crime to be in the country illegally, and it mandated that local police question the immigration status of anyone they stopped for a crime.

Demonstrations, boycotts and court cases ensued in the aftermath of enactment. A year later, SB 1070's supporters call it a success. Opponents say it's a disaster. Either way, it's changed the state.

'Just More Piling On'

About a dozen opponents of SB 1070 have been regulars outside the Senate wing of the capital building in Phoenix. They are resolute but low key compared with the thousands of protesters on the same spot a year ago. That could be because inside the building, legislators such as Republican state Sen. Steve Pierce, now have other priorities.

"To me, the number one thing we have in the state is our economy. Finding jobs. We had to get the budget out. Doing things for the economy," Pierce says. "People are hurting, and hurting bad."

Pierce voted for SB 1070 a year ago. He said Arizona's border security problem needed attention. This year, he and some other Republicans joined Democrats to defeat five new bills aimed at illegal immigrants. Among other things, the new bills would have required schools and hospitals to check immigration status.

"The bills this year were just more piling on. It was about checking citizenship in a hospital, and I just don't see where checking the citizenship of somebody going into a hospital has anything to do with border security," Pierce says.

The bills were defeated two days after 50 Arizona business leaders sent a letter to state Senate President Russell Pearce asking him to back off new state immigration laws. That gave some Republicans cover to vote against the bills. But Pearce is the architect and chief sponsor of almost all of Arizona's immigration laws.

And he isn't backing off anything.

"We're not going to retreat. We will do what we have to do and I personally will do what I have to do until this invasion is stopped," Pearce says.

A year in, Pearce says SB 1070 is a success. Federal courts have blocked Arizona from enforcing key parts of the law but allowed other portions to take effect. The law, which helped create an unwelcoming atmosphere for illegal immigrants in the state, caused an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people to leave Arizona in the past year, he says.

"They were fleeing. I talked to a U-Haul man that has a large U-Haul company and he said they're doing business better than they've ever done before in their lives," Pearce says. "And they're one way — to Salt Lake City, to Colorado, to other parts of the nation."

A young critic of SB 1070.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
A young critic of SB 1070.

An Economic Hit

Pearce points to other measures of success: a sharp decrease in violent crime, 500 fewer inmates in state prisons than a year ago and fewer children enrolled in schools, especially in some heavily Hispanic areas. Those numbers are not in dispute. Whether they're all the result of illegal immigrants fleeing is debatable. Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema points out that the makeup of most immigrant families is mixed.

"So some of the people in the family are citizens, some of the people in the family are not citizens. But if one person is not, then the whole family may move. And then we lose that revenue, and we lose those future workers," Sinema says.

So, she says, SB 1070 has been bad for Arizona's economy — in lost workers and in lost tourism and convention dollars from continuing boycotts against the state. Plus, she says, Arizona's image took a hit from negative worldwide media coverage.

"I was in China, and members of the Chinese government were asking me questions about Arizona. That was unpleasant. That was very unpleasant," she says. "They were asking like, what was wrong with our state?"

Supporters say nothing's wrong with Arizona. In fact, SB 1070 was popular with voters in the state and nationwide. Everyone agrees it helped Brewer become a national political figure. SB 1070 has had an impact. Whether you see the impact as positive or negative depends on which side of the issue you're on.

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As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.