Arizona leaders lament as state's image takes beating with new immigration law

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A07

PHOENIX -- When state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) travels outside Arizona, she hears the same question over and over: "What's wrong with your state?" She notes Arizona's new immigration law, its ban on ethnic studies classes and its prohibition on creating animal-human hybrids.

The other day, Sinema sent a note to her Twitter followers that might as well have been accompanied by a heavy sigh. "Just one day," she tweeted, "I'd like Arizona to be in the news for something good."

Sinema is a Democrat in a largely Republican state, but her disheartenment is shared across party lines. Dean Martin, state treasurer and GOP candidate for governor, said national opinion on Arizona is "polarized. That's counterproductive."

Arizona finds itself at the vortex of an immigration debate that is increasingly bitter and, figures on both sides say, increasingly unwinnable. Opinions are split, with fear of harassment rising among Hispanics and worry about an economic boycott growing among the state's leaders.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has appointed a committee and allocated $250,000 to rebrand the state's image, while 13 Arizona chamber of commerce executives appealed to Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig to keep the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix after he faced pressure to change locations. They said it would preserve jobs for "innocent citizens, including our Hispanic community."

Both sides set

Musical performers such as Sonic Youth, Kanye West and Rage Against the Machine have said they will boycott the state. Phoenix City Hall calculates that Arizona has lost nearly $100 million in convention commitments. Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of the immigration law are taking to the streets weekly.

The national focus on the state has grown since April 23, when Brewer, facing a primary election challenge, signed the bill known as SB1070, giving police wide latitude to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. The governor met last week with President Obama at the White House, pressing her point that federal inaction forced Arizona to act.

"Both sides are definitely set in their positions. Probably no one's going to change anyone's mind," said Grant Woods (R), a former state attorney general, who worries that an image of the state as intolerant will take hold. "I think it sticks until we rise above it."

In Arizona and beyond, the law has many supporters. A CBS News poll last month found that 52 percent of respondents nationally think the Arizona law is "about right" in its handling of illegal immigrants. Seventeen percent said it does not go far enough. Twenty-eight percent said the law goes too far.

Although the law is not due to take effect until July 29, Hispanic families that include undocumented immigrants are lying low. Some are planning moves to other states, said the Rev. Vili Valderrama, who lives in Nogales, near the border with Mexico. "People feel discouraged; they feel powerless," he said.

Natividad Lopez Rubio, known as "Natty," said his Nogales-to-Phoenix shuttle business is suffering. A few months ago, his minivans made 14 round trips a day and were often full. Now, he is lucky to make five trips with a few passengers on each.

"Most of the people we carry are Mexican. People are scared," Lopez Rubio said outside his office, one block from the busy border crossing. "It's totally a consequence of the law."

In lamenting the state's increasingly bitter divisions, Laura Briggs, who teaches women's studies at the University of Arizona, cites a painful example of ethnic strife. "It feels like what people said about Sarajevo," said Briggs, whose daughter is Mexican American. "I used to be part of a community that was mixed. People lived in the same neighborhood, people intermarried. Now there's this unleashing of this horrible anti-Latino racism that I can't even understand."

Another blow

Opponents of the immigration law may be frustrated, but "boycotts are absolutely the wrong way to go," said Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the state chamber of commerce. Boycotts hurt Arizonans, "particularly in the tourist industry, who had nothing to do with the law," he said.

Taylor is especially annoyed with state and local governments that are canceling deals with Arizona businesses or calling on others to do so. "If they were truly invested in the immigration issue," he said, "they'd be pressing Washington for comprehensive immigration reform."

The last time Arizona's image suffered such a blow was in the 1980s, when many Republicans, including then-U.S. Rep. John McCain, opposed a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Woods, the former attorney general, said the moment inspired his winning campaign as a GOP promoter of civil rights. This time, he is counting on "intelligent, compassionate people from all sides" to find a compromise.

"There are some states that are pretty much lily-white. That's not our state," Woods said. "To be an Arizonan is to be a part of Mexico. It's to be a part of the various Native American tribes. That's part of our culture, the diversity. I think the people's hearts are there, but the leaders don't always respect that."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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