Russell Pearce was far from home the day his son got shot. Minutes from the White House, the state legislator was preaching the Pearce gospel. "They're taking jobs away from Americans," he told a small audience at a prominent DC think tank. "Health care systems are failing. The education system has imploded. Eighty percent of the violent crimes in Phoenix are involving illegal aliens." Pearce speaks softly, and he has a sad-puppy look about him when he mentions the men and women he has devoted his life to pushing back behind the Mexican border. "You can't continue to pander and have pathetic policies that hurt America."
Moments later, a Brookings Institution staffer handed Pearce a note instructing him to call his wife LuAnne—"now." Pearce's son Sean, a sheriff's deputy in Arizona's Maricopa County, was being airlifted to a hospital with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. Plane delays and red lights slowed an excruciating trip to a crawl. LuAnne called back with an update. "You're not going to believe this," she said. "Sean was shot by an illegal alien.' "
Rep. Russell Pearce talks little about himself and much about state politics, but his personal life has an uncanny way of colliding with his political obsessions. Like his son, Pearce bears a wound from his days in law enforcement: 30 years ago a Latino gang member put a bullet in his right hand, leaving it permanently disfigured. In a state where most people—Latino or otherwise—are transplants, the Republican lawmaker can honestly say that he has been observing the transformation of Arizona since the day he was born. For decades, he has watched, horrified, as his native city spread like syrup over the pancake-colored desert. Arizona is now the second fastest growing state in the nation, and the Phoenix-Mesa metropolitan region, where Pearce was born, raised, and elected, is the fastest growing region in the state.
Sun-seeking natives drove most of that growth, but over the last decade Arizona has become a major corridor for unauthorized immigrants. In the mid-1990s, federal authorities took Vietnam-era landing mats and erected a steel wall between Tijuana and California. Border agents, once a rare sight, began to dot the more populated Texas and California borders. So those who aspired to work in America charted a course right through the middle, braving the Sonoran Desert in hopes of avoiding armed guards. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 10 percent of Arizona's work force in 2005 was undocumented, twice the national average.
Pearce aims to change that, one way or another. He has been a state legislator for only eight years, but he has used nearly every political position he has held, from deputy sheriff to director of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Division, to crack down on undocumented workers. He wants to end birthright citizenship, slash immigration quotas, and throw up more walls. He has proposed that officials at the state's Child Protective Services be required to root out undocumented children. The representative of a city named Mesa, Pearce co-authored an initiative to ban the use of Spanish in most official communications. Most of all, he thinks anyone who puts "profits above patriotism" ought to be kept from doing business in the state of Arizona. In the summer of 2007, Pearce finally got his wish.
In July of last year the Arizona legislature passed Pearce's Fair and Legal Employers Act, also known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, the most severe state-level anti-illegal immigration measure in the country. Under the bill, any company caught "knowingly" hiring someone not authorized to work could have its business license suspended. A second offense would bring permanent revocation. All employers would be required to use E-Verify, a federal electronic verification that is voluntary in the other 49 states. (See "Get in Line!," page 38.)
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, had already vetoed "13 or 14" of his bills, so Pearce had a press release ready to go for when Napolitano rejected this one. But the veto never came. Napolitano called one of the provisions a "business death penalty," then signed anyway.
At a time of economic downturn, Pearce has volunteered the state for a radical experiment in state-level border control, an initiative emulated with varying degrees of success by state legislators in Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, and elsewhere. On the national level, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) wants to force every American employer to check federal databases before hiring anyone. Shuler's bill is in limbo, and several state laws aimed at punishing employers of undocumented workers are tied up in the courts. But punishing employers polls well among the electorate, draws bipartisan support, and continues to tempt politicians in search of a movement.
Supporters of sanctions say they are the most effective way to keep undocumented workers from flooding the country; opponents say they will cripple legitimate businesses and force immigrants underground. No one really knows the full effect sanctions will have on an economy that has come to depend on Mexican builders, servers, janitors, nannies, and day laborers. Thanks to Russell Pearce, Arizona is about to find out.
Sheriff Joe and His Rival Ex-Deputy
Maria (her name, like those of other immigrants, has been changed for this story) is leaving Phoenix. It's not that she lacks papers. She is a permanent resident employed by the local school district, and she has lived in the U.S. for 17 years. But like many Latinos working legally, she has a close relative who is undocumented—her teenage son, Luis.
Last year, Luis witnessed a hit-and-run accident that left a Phoenix bicyclist on the side of the road. Maria says her son got out of the car, ran to the victim, and called the paramedics and police. When the police arrived at the scene, they asked for Luis' account of the accident. They then inquired into his immigration status and promptly arrested their witness. Luis was eventually released, but Maria resolved to go somewhere more welcoming—Utah perhaps, or Canada. She won't be leaving alone.
While it is difficult to know how many immigrants are packing up and moving on, Phoenix residents see evidence of a minor exodus. Apartment complexes that cater to low-income Latinos tell the local press that vacancies are up. Nancy Nicolosi—co-owner of Nicolosi & Fitch, which manages 3,000 apartments in Tucson—told the Arizona Star in January that the number of people disappearing with rent unpaid had jumped more than 300 percent during the previous year. A month later The New York Times reported that school districts in heavily Latino districts had seen sudden drops in enrollment, a sign that parents may be pulling their kids out of school and heading out of state.
In theory, the employer sanctions bill was meant to rid the state of illegal, not legal, immigrants. In practice, legal workers are the husbands, wives, parents, and children of the undocumented. As with a tumor surrounded by healthy tissue, it is impossible to excise the unauthorized without losing the productive, legal workers attached to them.
Sanctions aren't the only reason an immigrant in Arizona, with or without papers, might abandon his apartment, grab his kids, and find a new place to do business. In 2006 the state's economy was growing at a rate of 6.7 percent, double the national average. In 2007 growth slowed to 1.8 percent, and in 2008 it's expected to slow further as housing prices drop and once-plentiful construction jobs grow scarce. For her part, Maria is leaving neither because of the law nor because of the economy. She is simply tired of being harassed by a county that has turned its sheriff 's deputies into immigration informants.