Republican Kyl's immigration stance splits Arizona

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Hard-liners in the immigration debate stood behind Sen. Jon Kyl for his tough stance on immigration last year, while undocumented immigrants thrashed a pinata bearing his image.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios in Washington, January 14, 2007. Hard-liners in the immigration debate stood behind Kyl for his tough stance on immigration last year, while undocumented immigrants thrashed a pinata bearing his image. REUTERS/Alex Wong/Meet the Press/Handout

Now the Arizona Republican’s surprise support for a bipartisan Senate bill seeking to legalize some 12 million illegal immigrants and create a guest-worker program has bewildered friends and foes alike in the desert state.

The measure, which would tie tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a guest-worker program and a plan to offer the millions of illegal immigrants a path to legal status, is under fire from the right and the left.

Conservatives argue that it will give amnesty to people who broke U.S. laws, while unions say the temporary worker program will create an underclass of cheaper laborers.

In Kyl’s home state, some Republicans are furious at what they see as treachery from an ally who opposed a Senate immigration bill last year, but helped broker the present deal with liberal Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy and the White House.

“He has betrayed the people who voted for him. It is absolutely a sellout of America,” Arizona state lawmaker Russell Pearce said in a telephone interview.

The sharp about-face by Kyl also wrong-footed immigrants’ rights activists in the border state, a few of whom had once thrashed a pinata bearing a picture of the senator in frustration at his former pro-enforcement stance.

“I was dumbfounded by his change of heart ... and I truly apologize for the incident with the pinata,” said Elias Bermudez, the director of the Immigrants Without Borders activist group in Phoenix. “We are very proud of his stance.”


Kyl said last week he intends to spend the Memorial Day recess talking with the editorial boards of Arizona’s top newspapers and to constituents to hear their concerns and answer questions about the deal.

Meanwhile, analysts and activists in the state have been puzzling over his about-face and what it might mean for both Kyl and the Republicans in Arizona, where presidential contender Sen. John McCain also supports immigration reform.

“One possible explanation, and it’s a commendable one, is that regardless of the political fallout (Kyl) is pushing a bill that he honestly believes in,” said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst at Arizona State University.

“He’s not up for re-election so he’s somewhat insulated so he’s taken a kind of McCainish position saying ‘I’m doing the right thing for the state, regardless of politics,’” he added.

There are signs that the fierce initial opposition to Kyl’s stance may be turning. The senator said last week that the number of calls to his office from angry constituents was tailing off, while messages of support had doubled.

Whereas many hard-liners in the state continue to feel stung by what they see as Kyl’s betrayal, other local activists believe the pragmatism and leadership he has shown in the tough fight over immigration may bring him kudos in months ahead.

“He’s a very sophisticated politician, and he knew what he was getting into,” said Dick White, the vice president of the Valley Interfaith Project, which supports the bill.

The upside for Kyl “is being seen as someone who is central to resolving a broken system and breaking a logjam ... after way too long.”