Arizona illegal immigration, 'birther' bills show rightward shift

Arizona lawmakers, fresh off sending a controversial illegal immigration bill to the governor, on Wednesday advanced a bill requiring presidential candidates to show a birth certificate in order to appear on the ballot there.

Amanda Lee Myers/AP
Opponents of a sweeping immigration bill hold a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Tuesday. The bill, and another requiring proof of citizenship for presidential candidates to appear on state ballots, indicate a shift to the right.

Even by the measure of Arizona's long history of conservatism, the past week has been extraordinary.

In the past six days, the legislature has passed the nation's strictest anti-illegal immigration bill, a law permitting concealed weapons, and the House has approved a bill requiring a presidential candidate to show his or her birth certificate to appear on the state ballot.

The last bill, which now must pass the Senate, was a clear nod to the birther movement, which claims that President Obama was not born in the US.

This is the home of five-term Sen. Barry Goldwater, known as "Mr Conservative" – the politician most often credited for sparking the resurgence of the American conservative political movement in the 1960s. But a confluence of factors, ranging from the rising pitch of the illegal immigration debate to the departure of a Democratic governor and her replacement by a Republican has tilted Arizona even further to the right.

“They had a Democratic governor, and when she left, that completely changed the political calculus,” says Matthew Kerbel, a professor of political science at Villanova University. Now the legislative and executive branches are of the same party, he says.

“We are seeing this state deal with that list of issues which reflect what the national Republican party’s most animated portion of voters is after,” says Mr. Kerbel. Like-minded people are attracted to the political fight and move residence to join in, he and others say.

It is this migration that has served to amplify Arizona's conservative leanings in recent years.

“The truth is that Arizona has been a state with far-right politics going back many years, but in [the] last weeks and months is an even more remarkable lurch to right,” says Mark Potok, Director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. “You’ve got a lot of whites moving into the state who are not from there, and who seem to feel this is a white man’s state, and who don’t like it when they find more diversity than they expected.”

The recent high-profile murder of a rancher – with tracks leading back to Mexico – has inflamed anti-immigration sentiment.

Immigrant activist Kat Rodriguez moved to Arizona in 2000 and says even she, a Texan, is stunned by Arizona’s shift to the right.

“For the last five to seven years, this state seems to have been attracting the xenophobic and evenly openly racist groups of people,” says the Tucson-based coordinator for Derechos Humanos.

The deeper problem, say some, is that the drawing of state legislative districts empowers the extremes of the political right.

“The biggest driver of this from my perspective is that Arizona districts are currently drawn so that they are not competitive,” says Farrell Quinlan, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small business owners. Only 20 percent of both parties show up for primaries, so candidates have to appeal to the most faithful and ideologically pure, he says. “The districts are set up in ways that push politicians to the most irreconcilable positions – that filters down to the kinds of laws that you have coming out of here right now,” says Quinlan.

For others, though, it is the latest incarnation of a way of life that has deep roots in the old "wild, wild west."

“Arizona has always had a contrarian, cantankerous streak,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

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