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Discontent over illegals in Arizona

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

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2004


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.

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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.