PHOENIX (Reuters) - Protesting outside the Arizona legislature this week, Hispanic activist Carlos Galindo was clear about the impact of the desert state’s controversial immigration crackdown made into law one year ago.
“It has polarized Arizona,” said Galindo, 51, a talk-radio host sitting with protesters who, along with police who watch over them, have become a fixture outside the Capitol as the anniversary approaches.
Controversy is one of the few things Americans can agree on in discussing the crackdown on illegal immigrants, which was signed into law by Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But some key provisions remain blocked by a U.S. federal judge from taking effect.
Fueled by frustration at the U.S. federal government’s failure to secure the state’s porous border with Mexico, the law sent shock waves around the country and moved illegal immigration to the front burner as an issue for often bitter debate from legislatures to family homes.
“It has stimulated awareness and discussion on the illegal immigration issue, there’s no question about that,” said Bruce Merrill, a pollster and political scientist at Arizona State University, assessing its impact.
National polls showed the law, which sought to drive 460,000 illegal immigrants from the desert state and curb the smuggling of people and drugs over the porous border from Mexico, was backed by a majority of Americans.
But opponents said a provision enabling and requiring local police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect was unlawfully in the country would lead to the harassment of Hispanic-Americans.
That power was one of several provisions of the law blocked by a judge who argued that immigration matters were the federal government’s responsibility, not the states’.
President Barack Obama opposed the law but supports a comprehensive immigration reform -- including tougher border security and a shot at citizenship for many of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants if they pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line to apply.
At a meeting with business leaders, faith groups and other stakeholders this week, Obama reiterated his call for broad reform.
But legislation is stalled at the federal level. Even passage of the so-called “Dream Act,” giving legal status to some youngsters brought to the United States as children, has evaded Democrats facing stiff Republican opposition in Congress.
At the Arizona legislature earlier this week, Senate President Russell Pearce -- a fiery conservative who led the effort in crafting the state’s immigration crackdown -- said the law has been a “huge, huge success.”
With several measures of the law in effect, he said it has contributed to driving at least 100,000 illegal immigrants from the Mexico border state as well as to dips in already falling crime rates and the state’s prison population.
He also credits the law, dubbed “SB 1070,” with inspiring Republicans in more than 20 U.S. states to pursue similar measures -- although results so far have been patchy.
Arizona-style bill have passed at least one chamber in Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina state legislatures in 2011 sessions, while a law with weaker immigration enforcement and a guest worker program was signed by Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert.
However, an Arizona-inspired crackdown has only fully cleared both houses in one state, Georgia, where it now awaits the approval of Governor Nathan Deal, who has said in media interviews that he intends to sign it.
‘AN ECONOMIC BLACK EYE’
Arizona-style legislation has been tossed or failed to advance in California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to the National Immigration Forum.
“States clearly wanted to debate the issue further, but they are finding that they are suspending discussion this year pending court decisions or just deferring it indefinitely,” said Ann Morse, immigration analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There are also signs that enthusiasm for state immigration remedies is waning in Arizona itself, following the bitter controversy surrounding SB 1070, which cost the Grand Canyon state an estimated $140 million in lost tourism and convention revenue due to boycotts and protests, according to one survey, and made it the butt of talk show jibes as the “show-your-papers” state.
The Republican-controlled state Senate voted down five immigration bills in March, including a measure that sought to provoke a challenge to birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, after 60 Arizona chief executives sent a letter to lawmakers warning the laws would hurt business.
“Arizona needs to get rid of our economic black eye ... and get back to where people want to come to our state,” said Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic state senator who opposed the bills and SB 1070, and now hopes that the state can put the row over immigration behind it.
Pearce, though, says something had to be done about illegal immigration. “You can’t become a lawless nation and ignore the damage and destruction.”
Editing by Peter Bohan