What Arizona Immigration Law Might Mean for Midterm Elections

On Friday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law what most everyone agrees is the most restrictive immigration law in the country.

The law, which allows local police to stop and demand proof of citizenship from anyone suspected of being an illegal resident, has been assaulted and hailed by the opposite sides of the immigration debate.

The law is bound to have a profound impact on communities like El Mirage, Ariz., a Latino-heavy “Immigration Nation” Patchwork Nation community in Maricopa County. Even before the law was signed, the people we talk to there have told of us a community where Latinos – legal immigrants and native-born Hispanics – fear being pulled over by the county sheriff.

“I have heard nothing good about it,” Sylvia Rivera, a local business owner and seamstress, wrote in an e-mail. “Now I feel we live in a racist state as well. My Hispanic friends and family are not happy at all.”

That kind of reaction is hardly surprising in a place where residents have told us there are informal phone trees that go into effect when a sheriff’s cruiser is spotted in the area. But in an election year, there may well be broader impacts in Arizona and throughout the Southwest in counties we call “Immigration Nation.”

Stirring up the left?

As a whole, the vote out of “Immigration Nation” has swung recently. President George W. Bush won these counties in 2004 by about nine percentage points. But in 2008, they went for then-Sen. Barack Obama by four points.

There are likely a number of reasons for that swing – the economy hurt the Republican Party almost everywhere in 2008. But one can’t ignore efforts by the GOP between 2004 and 2008 to tighten immigration laws. Those Republican efforts brought about large protests in Hispanic communities around the country, including “Immigration Nation.”

One theory about the new Arizona law is that is will help fire up the Republican base in the state – and it may. But the Republican base is already somewhat fired up to begin with – witness the enthusiasm in the “tea party” movement.

On the other side of the political spectrum, though, the law may well renew concerns about immigration and help bring Hispanics to the polls to vote Democratic, particularly in “Immigration Nation” counties. What kind of difference could that make?

Well, look on the Patchwork Nation map of communities at Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and consider the congressional races in those states. The “Immigration Nation” counties in those states could play a role in races like New Mexico’s First and Second Congressional Districts, Arizona’s Eighth, and Texas’s 23rd – possibly even Colorado’s Third. All are either toss-up districts or only leaning Democratic, and all have high concentrations of “Immigration Nation” counties.

Those “Immigration Nation” counties also could play a big role in the Senate and governor’s races in California and Colorado.

Reactions to the new law from these counties in Arizona and in surrounding states should be watched closely. Already there are some signs of immigration blowing up larger as an issue in Colorado.

Business and baseball

Beyond the Latino population, it may be interesting to watch the business community’s reaction in Arizona and the surrounding states. Illegal immigrants work a lot of jobs in the Southwest.

Maricopa County made headlines in 2008 when Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is staunchly anti-illegal immigrant, had his deputies raid the city hall and library of Mesa, arresting 16 people who were part of the night cleaning crew and workers for the contractor Management Cleaning Controls. The raid caused hard feelings between the city and the county.

Troy Corder, who works in public relations in the area, writes in an e-mail that some in the tourism community are worried about unintended consequences. “It’s been a very big issue here over the last week. Lots of talk about losing conference and tourism visits. We are waiting to see if the MLB All-Star game moves.”

Major League Baseball, which, of course, has a large number of Latin American players, is scheduled to play its midsummer classic in Phoenix in 2011.

In other words, the governor’s signing of the new law on Friday was significant by itself, but it also marked the beginning of a long story that will be unfolding in that state and in “Immigration Nation” counties around the Southwest.

This entry is cross-posted from the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation site.

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