Across Arizona, Illegal Immigration Is on Back Burner
CHANDLER, Ariz. — The angry protests over Arizona’s tough policies focused on illegal immigrants are mostly gone. The sponsor of the state’s touchstone immigration bill has been recalled, while two sheriffs who championed the crackdown are enmeshed in legal difficulties. And there has been a notable decline in police activity aimed at illegal immigrants, easing a long period of anxiety among Mexican communities.
Two years after Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed legislation that required all immigrants to carry documentation or face arrest — a law that set off protests here and stirred a national boycott of the state — concern about illegal immigration is no longer the all-consuming issue it had been for so long.
The fading of the issue, at least for now, was most recently on display in the Republican presidential primary. At a debate here last week, it took an hour before the issue that has shaken Arizona for five years was raised.
“There’s no doubt that in Arizona, there is immigration fatigue,” said Scott Smith, the mayor of Mesa and a Republican. “People want to talk about things that impact them every day. And the reality is that in Arizona, illegal immigration does not affect you as much as not having a job.”
“It’s still important,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s just not as controversial here as it once was.”
The change has prompted worry among some of the leading advocates of tough immigration policies, even as they predict that the tide will change again — perhaps when the employment situation improves here and the flow of illegal immigrants slipping across the border picks up, or when the Supreme Court rules on a challenge to the Arizona law, SB 1070, later this year.
“It is not a front-burner issue now, because it’s been displaced largely by our dismal economy,” said State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican. “It worries me, but I understand why it happens. And I just always remind people that the illegal immigration issue hasn’t gone away. It’s just been overshadowed and temporarily shifted to the back burner.”
Ms. Brewer — who announced on Sunday that she was endorsing Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in this state’s primary on Tuesday — said in an interview that she had been disappointed by the limited discussion of policy on immigration and Mexico in last week’s Republican presidential debate and during the campaign.
“I would have liked to see a candidate come forward who understands the terrible disarray the state of Mexico is in. It’s a fractured, inoperable state right now,” Ms. Brewer said. “Everybody says they all have different ideas, but they all are basically saying pretty much the same thing.”
The economic problems here — joblessness, home foreclosures — have contributed to this shift in attention, along with the fact that there have been no recent crimes or arrests involving illegal immigrants. But not incidentally, this has taken place as some of the best-known players in the fight against illegal immigration here have run into legal and political troubles.
The sponsor of the original bill, Russell Pearce, the former head of the State Senate, was recalled from office in November in a display of the backlash that has caused alarm among Republican leaders. Joseph M. Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County who has become one of the leading advocates of tough immigration policy, has been accused by the Justice Department of anti-Latino bias and abuses of authority.
Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County was forced to step down as a co-chairman of Mr. Romney’s Arizona campaign last week amid accusations that he had threatened to deport a former lover — who was from Mexico — after he threatened to publicize their relationship. Mr. Babeu, who is now running for Congress, had appeared with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, in a particularly tough immigration ad that Mr. McCain had used in his 2008 presidential run.
“The media coverage hasn’t been so great because Joe Arpaio is facing indictment, so he is laying pretty low,” said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona pollster and political analyst. “We have not had any arrests. When the media covers it, it causes the attention to go up. There’s a feeling here that it’s not as important as it once was.”
None of which is to say that immigration is not a major concern for most people in this border state, or that the passions could not arise again. “Around the country, jobs and the economy are on people’s minds,” said Representative Ben Quayle, Republican of Arizona. “You can talk about the economy and you can talk about how we are going to secure our borders.”
Mr. Merrill said his own polls had found that immigration continued to be listed as a top concern of voters here; the difference was that it had been joined by the economy and joblessness.
Chip Scutari, a political consultant, said attitudes among Arizona voters from both parties were more nuanced than was reflected in the actions of the Republican-controlled Legislature. “Many of the voters who support 1070 also support an earned path to citizenship,” he said of the immigration law. “I think border issues are in the mix. But because there’s been such a quagmire, it’s lost some of its sex appeal.”
Whatever the case, the waning interest may be something of a gift to the Republican presidential candidates, sparing them from being drawn into a “who can be tougher on illegal immigrants” fight that might hurt their appeal to Latino voters.
“They all kind of danced with the same rhetoric, but none of them wanted to embrace it as a central issue,” said Representative Raul M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat. “I think there was a calculated issue to minimize talking about something where they could lose voters.”
Whatever the short-term benefit for Republicans, Democrats and some Latino leaders argue that the party has suffered long-lasting damage. The spate of legislation has helped Democrats register more Latino voters and increase turnout in local elections, similar to what happened in California after Republicans supported tough immigration measures, including Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that would have cut off public services to illegal immigrants.
“There has been a tangible, palpable momentum shift in the state, which is essentially saying, ‘Well that was a disaster, and what should we do about it?’ ” said James E. Garcia of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “But the damage that the Republican Party did to itself in this state is absolutely comparable to what the Republican Party in California did to itself.”
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Washington.