Immigration Battle Divides Ariz. GOP
Many Activists Despise McCain

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

PHOENIX -- The protesters gather every morning before dawn, monitoring the entrance to a fenced compound called the Macehualli Work Center. They are trying to shut the place down. They wave placards and take photos of anyone driving in to pick up the day laborers who congregate there. They want nothing less than to save America from what they call "the invasion."

"Most of us don't feel safe on the Phoenix streets without being armed," says Wes Pecsok, a contractor who keeps his pistol in an inner vest pocket. "We're not going to be intimidated by these thugs. "

The protesters are members of the Minutemen, Riders USA, United for a Sovereign America. They find a common bond in their rage, their fury at the government, their loathing of Hispanics who have come to the United States illegally. They say that many immigrants carry disease, and kill cops, and rape children.

"We're the Wild West," protester Craig Tillman says with a smile.

The Wild West is actually a rather ordinary-looking, heavily commercialized artery called Bell Road. Mexico is a three-hour drive south of here, but Bell Road and places like it are where the worlds collide, one culture grinding against the other. And in the home state of Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, that clash has driven a wedge straight through the Arizona GOP.

The party is controlled at the district level by activists who detest McCain for his sponsorship, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), of a comprehensive immigration bill that among other things would have provided illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. They think McCain is a traitor to conservative causes and an advocate for amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"We do not consider him a conservative at all," says Rob Haney, a Republican Party chairman in McCain's home district. The candidate's bus, the Straight Talk Express, should be renamed, Haney says: "We call it the Forked Tongue Express around here. He'll lie about anything."

Said John Acer, a lawyer who, like Haney, showed up last weekend at a meeting of the Republican state committee in Glendale: "He's despicable. Dishonest. Duplicitous." And so it goes, on and on, all these Republicans who wince at the mention of McCain's name, and who can think of few things worse than having the state's senior Republican senator ascend to the White House.

McCain is likely to win the state's Republican primary on Tuesday. He wins elections here in Arizona easily. Party activists don't control the Republicans in voting booths any more than they control the senior senator. But McCain's in-state problems reflect his national quandary as he tries to convince American conservatives that he's one of them.

Once home to Barry Goldwater, Arizona has a credible claim as the birthplace of modern American conservatism. But even Goldwater, late in life, found himself at odds with many conservatives in the state who laced the ideology with social issues that had nothing to do with low taxes and small government.

"I feel badly that, with a lot of these people, Barry Goldwater would be unwelcome," says Grant Woods, a moderate Republican and former Arizona attorney general. "I would hope for Arizona's future in the Republican Party is that it would continue to produce leaders of the caliber of Goldwater, of Sandra Day O'Connor, of John McCain; yet if this posture continues, from the state party, you won't see those leaders come from within the party anymore. Because no one in their right mind would deal with these people."

At the GOP meeting, a few volunteers staffed a McCain table, passing out fliers listing misconceptions about McCain -- playing defense in hostile territory.

Haney, probably the most vociferous of McCain's critics, patrolled the hallway wearing a little button on his lapel that read "McCain 2008" and had a slash through it. He agreed that Goldwater today wouldn't get his vote: "He's pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda," Haney said. And he says he sees little difference between McCain and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton on the immigration issue. "He's for open borders. He's for amnesty. Hillary's for amnesty."

Nearby sat a man wearing a McCain button -- no slash. Horst Kraus, 77, said he immigrated from Germany in 1960. He owns a nudist camp in Arizona (and says the conservative Republicans outnumber everyone else by 2 to 1). The immigration rhetoric scares him.

"I see 1938 all over again," Kraus said. "Back then it was 'Jews, raus' " -- Jews, out.

"Now it's 'Mexicans, out,' " he said. "I am very disturbed by it."

On Bell Road, that fear is shared by the many Hispanics who work or shop at the car lots, pawnshops, liquor stores, furniture stores and check-cashing operations that line the highway, one of the main drags in North Phoenix.

"It's scary," says Mary Torres, 39, who works at a thrift shop.

"There's a hatred for rising Hispanic communities in Arizona. They don't want little L.A.'s in Arizona," says co-worker Barbara Gutierrez, 40.

"A lot of people are going to other states. Even Canada," Torres said.

"Less controversy. Less pressure," Gutierrez said.

Max Romero, 41, proprietor of John's Olde Barber Shop -- a Hispanic-oriented business with "peluqueria" stenciled on the front window -- says that most of his customers are more focused on the Super Bowl than on Super Tuesday. But he makes a prediction about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.):

"I think that light-skinned brother's going to win. Because Oprah backs him up. The senator for us, McCain, he just seems so senile. He don't make no sense. Homeboy's young."

In the parking lot, men congregated around the back of a pickup truck, apparently hoping to get hired. More men gathered on a distant street corner. The day laborer center where the protests are held was vacant. The demonstrations have effectively shut the place down, scattering the workers.

A state law that took effect Jan. 1 heightens penalties on business owners who hire illegal immigrants. The consequences have yet to play out, but some proprietors on Bell Road say business is down as Hispanics either save their money or flee the state, to points unknown. Some people worry that crime will spike. And people are frightened.

The manager of a liquor store, a Palestinian man who gave his name only as John, said the crackdown on employers is going to have terrible consequences among the Hispanics who live in the area. They'll do "crazy stuff," he predicted.

"They're not going to go back to Mexico! There's no jobs there!"

Down the road on a side street next to the McDonald's where the protesters have gathered, Tillman said he'd never vote for McCain, or for any of the Democrats.

Rusty Childress, founder of United for a Sovereign America, said he hopes a television personality will come to the rescue: "Our hope would be that you'd get Lou Dobbs jumping in at the last minute."

Barb Heller said she fears what amounts to an annexation of parts of Arizona by the Mexican government: "The president of Mexico is saying that wherever there is a Mexican, that's Mexico."

She showed up for Saturday's protest with a surgical mask around her neck. "No TB please" was written on it.

A Hispanic man approached on the far side of the street. She put the mask on. She said she does it whenever someone might be carrying tuberculosis. Illegal immigrants don't have to pass health tests before getting jobs, she says. They might be working right there at McDonald's, she said.

"Do you know what it takes to spread TB? Would you like a little TB with your Happy Meal?"

She knows what people say about the protesters.

"They say, 'Why are you racist?' That's all they can come up with," she said.

Noon approached, and the demonstrators began to pack up their placards. They'd be back in the morning.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company