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Arizona immigration law and illegal immigrants: state of extremes

Where lawmen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday mowed down outlaws at the O.K. Corral, Arizona immigration law brings its modern brand of western justice to the issue of illegal immigrants.

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"I meet all kinds of people: People born before statehood and those who moved here just six months ago," says Marshall Trimble, Arizona's state historian. "I find a common thread for everyone is the beauty of the place and cultural diversity, which I know goes against the national stereotype of us.

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"The land is more diverse than any place in the nation," he says of the richly forested north and searing deserts of the south. "And the state has that Old West attitude of independence and self-reliance."

Arizona's stubborn independence from the rest of the country was infamous during the decade it resisted recognition of Martin Luther King Day as a holiday before finally accepting it in 1993. Arizona is also the only mainland state that does not use daylight saving time, preserving early golf tee times and earlier darkness for drive-in theaters, among other reasons. And its reputation for law and order includes the peculiar (a sheriff who made prisoners wear pink underwear) and the serious (violent spillover from Mexico's drug and human smuggling that has caused the state to be dubbed the nation's kidnapping capital).

US Sens. Barry Goldwater and Mo Udall defined old Arizona, practical men on opposite political sides who sought to get things done for the good of the state. Sandra Day O'Connor, another Arizonan, brought similar skills of compromise to the US Supreme Court.

"Unfortunately, I'll probably get myself in a sling for saying this: I think right-wing Republicans have taken charge, and I'm sad to see that," Mr. Trimble says. "I was a Barry Goldwater Republican."

Characters dominate the state's history, Trimble says, people like William Owen "Bucky" O'Neill, a gambler, lawman, newspaperman, and politician who rode with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and was killed in Cuba; and Nellie Cashman, an Irish immigrant who landed in Tombstone.

"Most people think the women who came west to work in towns like Tombstone were prostitutes and madams," Trimble says. "Nellie Cashman was an entrepreneur. She opened up a boardinghouse and made a fortune."

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People still come to Arizona to make their fortunes and feed their families. Some 700,000 people moved to Arizona from other states between 2000 and 2008. And more Mexican migrants coming into the United States without documents are apprehended here than in any other state.

Buried in the debate on immigration is a profound demographic change in a state of some 6.5 million people: About 30 percent of the population is Hispanic.

The swift growth of the state's Hispanic population has created a "cultural generation gap," writes William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

In Arizona, the population of those 65 and over is 83 percent white; the population of those 18 and under is only 43 percent white. That gap – 40 percent – is the highest among the states.

"Is Arizona out of touch with the rest of America?" asks Mr. Frey. "Or, is it the precursor of things to come elsewhere?"