Voters on immigration: Action, please

In Arizona, it's the most important issue among likely voters. But consensus on how to act is elusive.

Much of America hit the pause button this fall on the flaming debate over illegal immigration, once it became clear Congress would not act before the election. But not Arizona.

Here in a state where the wave of border crossers is so great that it washes over every aspect of life, illegal immigration is a flash point in virtually every political race this fall. Moreover, there's a candidate for every view – from those saying "send 'em back and bar the door" to those who'd provide a path for citizenship for some undocumented workers.

Randy Graf, a Republican who hopes to win the open seat in a House district that sits on the border, is one who takes a tough stance. As he led a biker rally against illegal immigration on Sunday, someone handed him a frayed denim vest that "used to belong to an illegal alien." When Mr. Graf put it on, the crowd cheered. But the theatrics went too far, and his face blanked when the giver joked: "It has a bullet hole in the back."

Graf is in an uphill battle to hold the Eighth Congressional District for the Republicans. Predecessor Rep. Jim Kolbe, who is retiring, holds a more moderate view of immigration reform, as does Graf's Democratic challenger, Gabrielle Giffords. But Graf is banking that a majority of voters in this district feel as he does – and there are signs that Arizonans are, indeed, worked up over illegal immigration.

"Our surveys show that immigration is the most important issue for likely voters in this state," says Fred Solop, a political scientist at Northern Arizona University and director of the Social Research Laboratory there. But voters aren't distinguishing between competing proposals, he adds: "They just want something to be done."

The state's all-Republican congressional delegation – some of whom are in unexpectedly close contests for reelection – is deeply divided on the immigration issue. Sharing Representative Kolbe's view are Rep. Jeff Flake, in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Mesa, and the very popular Sen. John McCain. They'd like to see an approach to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for some of the 12 million people now in the US illegally.

On the other side are Graf and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who represents the also-upscale Fifth Congressional District in Scottsdale. They say their colleagues' plan amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants and would reward people for breaking the law. The nation must secure its borders first, they say. Then there's Sen. Jon Kyl, up for reelection this year, who favors expanding a guestworker program but who would also require undocumented workers to leave the US before applying for citizenship.

"Arizona is a microcosm of the nation when it comes to views on this issue. We're ground zero for the debate," says Farrell Quinlan, a spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce in Phoenix. "Our economy is growing, and a lot of industries have grown to rely on that source of labor."

Senator McCain's approach is to put party loyalty ahead of immigration differences. He has endorsed both Graf and Representative Hayworth, rather than candidates whose views on immigration are closer to his own. He is also stumping for Senator Kyl.

Immigration's toll on Arizona

In peak migration season, more than 8,000 immigrants cross from Mexico into Arizona every day, according to the National Border Patrol Council. Many find jobs in the state's booming construction, tourism, and farm industries. But the surge in newcomers exacts a heavy toll on schools, hospitals, and law enforcement, as well as on the migrants themselves, who in summer months perish by the scores in Arizona's harsh border regions.

"Politicians have very little will to change the current system because they're beholden to corporate interests who want the status quo maintained," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council of the AFL-CIO.

Arizonans will also vote next month on four ballot initiatives concerning illegal immigration. These include moves to deny bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious felonies, to refuse punitive damage awards to illegals involved in civil lawsuits, to make English the state's official language, and to bar undocumented people from receiving in-state tuition rates, state-funded childcare assistance, and other educational services.

On Friday, the US Supreme Court threw out an order by a federal appeals court that blocked Arizona from enforcing Proposition 200, which requires voters to have voter identification.

The governor's seat

Besides McCain, Arizona's other key player in the immigration debate is Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). While she has vetoed GOP bills that would have allowed local police to screen and deport undocumented people, she also makes the case that immigration is a federal responsibility and that Washington should do more to relieve costs borne by border states. In August 2005, she declared a border emergency and has stepped up cooperation with Mexico on issues such as human trafficking and those making fraudulent IDs.

On Nov. 7, she faces Republican Len Munsil, who promises to spend $515 million on border security during his first term as governor, and Libertarian Barry Hess, who says he would give the 110th Congress just 60 days to come up with a plan to secure the border. He also supports cooperating with citizen militias such as the Minutemen.

"It's been very helpful for us to have a governor in Arizona who has a strong record on immigration," says Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The race for the Eighth district

A founding member of the Minuteman Project and a former state legislator, Graf says his primary goal, if elected, is to stop illegal immigration. While President Bush has increased the border patrol to 14,000 agents by the end of this year, "it will take 40,000 to 50,000 more officers to secure the borders," he said Saturday at a town-hall meeting at a retirement community in Tucson.

National GOP leaders had urged Graf not to run because, they say, he is too hard-core on this issue for the Eight District.

Ms. Giffords, a state senator, is leading Graf in recent polls by double digits. She says Americans do not have confidence in the US House of Representatives, especially its ability to solve the immigration crisis.

"We are shouldering the cost of what is a national problem," she said at the same Tucson meeting on Saturday. Giffords prefers a more comprehensive approach to reform legislation, to open more legal avenues for work "so the border patrol can focus on drug smugglers."

A surprise contest in the Fifth

In one of the surprises of the electoral season, Representative Hayworth finds himself in a race that's too close to call. Ordinarily, Hayworth is a fixture on the GOP talk circuit, sent to places where Republican colleagues are in tight races, but he has been staying close to home this time, aides say. His lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Harry Mitchell – once in the double digits – is now down to two or three points. Each camp says its own private poll gives its candidate a slight edge.

"A lot of money is going into that race," says Mr. Solop, the pollster. "Both national parties are in there now."

In a virtuoso debate appearance in Scottsdale on Monday, Hayworth reminded constituents that he is the only Arizonan in history to have served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee – a role that has allowed him to help the district. Two weeks ago, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2007, including funding for a fence along the border with Mexico, in Scottsdale, he said.

Mr. Mitchell, for his part, said Washington has the wrong priorities and that the nation needs a tough, realistic immigration plan.

"The enthusiasm is on our side," said Mitchell at a fundraiser on Friday, shouting over the thunk-thunk-thunk of the music of alternative pop rockers Jimmy Eat World and the Format. Tickets sold out in three days, mainly to students.

"J.D. is really out of touch," Mitchell says of his opponent. "He wants to only seal the border and make everyone a felon. It's just plain not realistic."

Mitchell, who helped lead Tempe's redevelopment and has a statue in his honor, adds: "The state has a 3.6 percent unemployment rate, and it depends on tourism, hospitality, and construction, and they need these workers."

Edward Hermes, a student representative on the Arizona Board of Regents, came to the fundraiser to check out Mitchell's message. "We're tired of all the positioning," he says. "We want a solution."

On Monday, Arizona State University students in Tempe marched to Phoenix in protest over Proposition 300 – the ballot initiative that denies education services and child-care benefits to illegal immigrants.

"Some 60,000 to 100,000 students apply to the university every year. If you spend 20 minutes on each one, you would need 17 full-time positions to deal with Prop. 300," says Jean Moreau. "Tuition goes up every year, and I don't see how we're going to get the money without cutting more classes."

"Voters are in a very ugly mood, on issues ranging from the war, scandals in Washington, the apparent loss of a moral compass, and the economy," says pollster Earl DeBerge of the Rocky Mountain Poll in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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