Arizona's Anti-Immigrant Immigrants

The politics of nativism in the Grand Canyon State


State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, by Jeff Biggers, Nation Books, 304 pages, $25.99

At the core of Jeff Biggers' State Out of the Union is a genuinely interesting investigation into the stark—sometimes stark, raving mad—nativism that has driven Arizona politics recently. Unfortunately, this account is buried under a pile of grievances and political talking points, so the incomplete and tantalizing outlines of that could-have-been book are discernible only after you've dug through the debris. The effort is worthwhile for the very patient reader, since Biggers does yeoman's work in tying together the threads of bigotry and opportunism that have placed Arizona at the forefront of America's current spasm of anti-immigrant fervor.

Biggers, a former staffer for Sen. George McGovern (D–S.D.), is an award-winning author of books on coal, Appalachia, and Mexico's Sierra Madre region. He is also a prolific Huffington Post blogger who combines an obviously sincere interest in immigration and other topics with an inability to resist grinding his ideological axes. State Out of the Union, subtitled Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, offers a similar combination, alternating incomplete treatments of extraneous and hardly unique-to-Arizona matters such as gun rights, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the 10th Amendment with the history of immigration issues in the state and the harsh policies of recent years.

Biggers is at his best when he lets Arizona's crazy cast of characters speak through their own words and actions. Gov. Jan Brewer asserted in June 2010 that "the majority of illegal trespassers" from Mexico are transporting drugs. Former state Senate President Russell Pearce—the father of S.B. 1070, Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law—claimed in September 2010 that "there's been 300 to 500 beheadings and dismemberments along that border." Then there was the bogus charge, parroted nationally starting around 2009 by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, that Phoenix had become an international kidnapping capital. Biggers ably refutes these canards with statements from bewildered border sheriffs and police officials who point out that Arizona's crime rate, far from surging on a wave of predatory illegal immigrants, has been dropping for years.

Little commentary is needed when it comes to Russell Pearce. The Mesa Republican was elected to the state Senate in 2008 after he was caught plagiarizing material from the white-supremacist National Alliance for a political email message and after he endorsed neo-Nazi J.T. Ready's unsuccessful 2006 run for Mesa City Council. Last May, Ready murdered his girlfriend and her family before killing himself.

Biggers capably documents the extent to which nativism permeates Arizona politics and molds its political leaders. With the exception of Pearce, all of the major names associated with Arizona's immigration follies converted to the cause out of political convenience. Brewer, who assumed the office of governor when predecessor Janet Napolitano resigned to take over the federal Department of Homeland Security, reinvigorated her sagging 2010 election campaign by signing S.B. 1070. And while Joe Arpaio is closely associated in most people's minds with the controversial law, he didn't embrace immigration enforcement until almost a decade and a half into his reign as sheriff of Maricopa County, after voters showed signs of tiring of his prisoner abuse and similar lawsuit-magnet antics. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu discovered an interest in immigration issues after moving to Arizona to reinvent himself in the wake of a failed political career in Massachusetts. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the "maverick" one-time media darling, performed a head-spinning 180-degree turn on immigration when it became clear that his support for relatively lenient policies threatened his political viability.

One of Biggers' more distracting obsessions is the charge that "carpetbaggers" dominate the political forces behind S.B. 1070 and the anti-immigrant movement. It's true that Brewer, Arpaio, Babeu, and McCain are transplants to Arizona (although Pearce is a native). But so are almost two-thirds of the state's residents. Some of Biggers' good guys, including Parraz, also have out-of-state roots. (Biggers never points out the irony of migrants to Arizona playing such a militant role in opposing immigration.)

Biggers really wants to find sinister business interests at the roots of the anti-immigrant movement, asking, "What were the underlying corporate interests behind Arizona's anti-immigration and radical Tea Party agenda?" This question comes after he details Mexican Americans' suffering not just at the hands of mining companies, which paid immigrants less than American-born workers, but also at the hands of labor unions, which refused membership to, and lobbied against, immigrants. Biggers credibly suggests that the Corrections Corporation of America, which denies an NPR report that that it had a hand in drafting model immigration legislation similar to S.B. 1070, benefits from the law because it provides additional inmates for the company's jails and prisons, but he also describes Pearce raging at the business community for putting "profits over patriots" by spurning his crusade to seal the border.

Perhaps Biggers' weirdest digression is the ink he spills on the often appalling crimes of men named Pearce, Romney, Udall, and Flake—not the modern-day politicians but their 19th-century ancestors. While an interesting slice of Americana, these stories are irrelevant to modern policy arguments, unless you believe the sins of the father should be laid upon the children.

The immigration fight currently raging in Arizona, as brutal and bigoted as it is, is not about the "Arizonification" of America. Rather, S.B. 1070 and all the unpleasantness that goes with it are about the Americanization of Arizona. As Biggers notes, Arizona's harsh policy was preceded by California's brutal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, among other nativist surges around the U.S. He also points out that the Obama administration "deported a record number of immigrants—more than his Republican predecessor—and ramped up Border Patrol and border security funds to unprecedented levels." Ultimately, despite himself, Biggers reveals that the dark forces at work to close the border and vilify immigrants include a large cross-section of the population, not just in Arizona but across the country.

And not just across the country but around the world. Nativist spasms in crisis-racked Greece, Italy, and France show that demonization and exclusion of the Other are the all-too-common results when different people come into contact, especially when they're subject to economic stresses. Biggers' "final showdown" is more likely a continuing struggle.