Out-of-staters fuel fight over Arizona immigration law

Arizona is attracting millions in out-of-state donations to defend its tough immigration law. Far-flung immigrant rights groups, too, are helping to make the state a test bed for the reform fight.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of Arizona’s immigration law look at a decorated portion of the border fence between the US and Mexico at a United Border Coalition Tea Party Rally west of Nogales, Ariz.
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Wyoming resident Timothy Mellon has no special ties to Arizona. But from his vantage point hundreds of miles away, he deemed the border state's struggles with illegal immigration a cause worthy of a $1.5 million contribution.

Mr. Mellon prefers not to elaborate on his reasons for injecting himself into the illegal immigration debate raging in Arizona and spilling across America. But he made clear his unflinching support for the state's attempts to battle illegal immigration through a new tough law that Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed in April, which is now tied up in court.

Although Mellon's recent donation is the largest in the $3.6 million fund to fend off legal challenges, money keeps pouring in from virtually every state. For example, online contributions totaled $11,000 in the first week of September, and during that period donations coming from Arizona ranked fifth behind those from California, New York, Florida, and Texas.

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Mellon, who splits his time between the communities of Saratoga and Laramie, is among scores of out-of-staters influencing the debate on both sides. From the busing of people here to protest or support the law to the boycotts of various cities against it and the donations to Governor Brewer's legal defense fund, people living outside Arizona are helping to frame policy in a state largely viewed as a laboratory for immigration reform.

Some Arizonans are less than thrilled with all the outside attention.

"I resent outsiders coming in and trying to tell us what to do, on one hand," says Marshall Trimble, Arizona's state historian. "On the other hand, I understand it's all part of the American system.

"When people feel [strongly] about their cause, whichever side it is, they're going to come in and try to influence it."

The lawsuit the Obama administration filed in July against Arizona's statute – which mandates state and local police officers to determine the legal status of people stopped for other infractions – appears to have boosted intervention from those living outside the state's borders, Mr. Trimble notes.

"Nobody likes to think the government is bullying one of its states," he says.

The federal government's legal challenge, one of several, was the key factor for the involvement of "tea party" faithfuls in the Arizona debate.

"That's what the tea party is most interested in, protecting states' rights and making sure the federal government lives within bounds set by the Constitution," says Greg Holloway, who is on the board of the Austin Tea Party Patriots.

He and other Texans have traveled to Arizona to rally in support of the state law and to work to counteract the effect of national boycotts. They did so not just to protect Arizona's right to enact its own legislation, but also to try to effect change to US immigration laws that Mr. Holloway says should be streamlined to bring in only productive, law-abiding immigrants.

Like most tea party members, he draws the line at a potential amnesty for the more than 11 million people estimated to be living in the United States illegally. "What we're talking about here is illegal immigration, not legal and appropriate immigration," Holloway says. "We want to encourage the latter and discourage the former."

To Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Net­work in Los Angeles, getting involved in the Arizona debate was only a matter of time. It became clear to activists several years ago that the anti-immigrant sentiment that engulfed California with the passage of Proposition 187 would spread to neighboring Arizona, in part because some of those pushing the 1994 measure next set their sights here and formed alliances with like-minded individuals in Arizona, Mr. Alvarado says.

"We thought Arizona would become a laboratory where extremist immigrant measures would be tested," he says, "and that's exactly what has happened."

The courts eventually ruled that most provisions of Prop. 187 are unconstitutional. The measure would have denied health care, education, and social services to illegal immigrants. In Arizona, a federal judge suspended the most controversial parts of the law while portions of it took effect July 29. The case is now at the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Alvarado's organization began preparing for the current debate as Arizona lawmakers pushed measures to crack down on illegal immigration, culminating in the approval of the controversial state legislation.

"We had organizers from all over the country come into Arizona and teach people how to mobilize, teaching people their rights," he says. His organization also helped bring in Californians so they could take part in summer protests against the law. Alvarado views Arizona's law as "part of a well-orchestrated national strategy of people that don't want to include immigrants in the country."

Perceptions that Arizonans are "hateful and intolerant" bother Ben Bethel, owner and general manager of the Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix. His business is finally starting to recover from the financial blow of canceled reservations after various calls to boycott Arizona because of the law. Still, the law also "brought attention to the fact that there is a major immigration crisis in the United States that needs to be dealt with," Mr. Bethel says.

Arizonan Frank Barrios, whose family roots in the state run deep, says the outside support can be found even within state borders, given the influx in recent years of newcomers who may be unfamiliar with communities as racially and ethnically diverse as those here.

"What you've got is people moving in from other places, bringing their politics with them. So it's not that surprising what we're seeing," says Mr. Barrios, who lives in Phoenix.

Trimble, the historian, says that if the US government moves forward on immigration reform it could mean vindication for the state. "Arizona could look pretty good because it was the one who stirred the pot," he says. "If nothing happens, Arizona continues to look racist. And I think it is a pretty tolerant place."

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