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What Arizona Can Teach Us About National Immigration Wrangling

Photo: Chess Ocampo /

Over his 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio earned the reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He was also, perhaps more notably, a lightning rod of controversy for his stance on immigration, becoming one of the most well-known Arizonans on the domestic stage. Despite losing his re-election this past year, Arpaio returned to the spotlight late last month when President Donald Trump made the contentious decision to pardon him after he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court. Brought together by their shared scorn for unauthorized Mexican immigrants and their hostile relationship with mainstream media, Trump and Arpaio rallied their shared base around issues of immigration and refocused the national debate on Arizona.

Yet between Arpaio’s notoriety and hot-button battles over anti-immigration legislation in the state legislature, Arizona actually became a flashpoint for the immigration debate years before Trump made it the centerpiece of his winning presidential campaign. Jude Joffe-Block, a New Arizona Fellow at New America who from 2010 to 2017 covered immigration and politics as a senior field correspondent for the NPR affiliate station in Phoenix, is co-authoring a book about how former Sheriff Joe Arpaio pioneered local immigration enforcement initiatives in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the class action racial profiling lawsuit Latino drivers brought to challenge those tactics, and the controversial pardon Arpaio received from Trump. I sat down with Joffe-Block to discuss Arizona’s reputation as ground zero for the immigration debate, as well as its effects on the state’s future. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.

First, in light of the unflattering attention heaped on Arizona in recent years over its anti-immigration policies, what can the state teach us about the re-emergence of immigration tensions both in national politics and in American society?

What’s so interesting both about Arizona a decade ago and about the 2016 presidential election is that we’ve seen how quickly immigration can become the issue for certain voters—the main litmus test for how they evaluate candidates. We saw this shift happen in Arizona in the mid-2000s, when immigration became the platform that certain candidates ran on, and it became a top issue for voters. It’s interesting to think if there’s really any other issue that, in just the span of a couple of months or years, has changed the political debate and landscape as quickly. Indeed, we’ve seen over time how, in American history, there are cycles in which immigration has played that role—of shaking up the political landscape. And this election was, in a way, the latest one.

I’ll add, though, that when you look now at public opinion polling on immigration in Arizona, on immigration enforcement and mass deportations, there’s been a shift over time and maybe fatigue over the issue being front and center. Even though Trump did well in the Republican presidential primary in Arizona, he, in the general, didn’t do that well compared to other Republican candidates in Arizona in the past. And that, coupled with public opinion polling about Arizonans’ views on immigration and border security and whether we need a wall or not, do suggest that Arizona isn’t only a hotbed of anti-illegal immigration fervor. It’s actually a lot more complicated.

Despite being the poster child for the nation’s immigration issue this past election, Arizona doesn’t, in fact, have one of the nation’s highest immigrant populations. What is it about Arizona that draws national attention when it comes to immigration law and policy?

We have to remember that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, illegal crossings over the Arizona border were happening at quite high numbers, and you did have these stories coming out in the media of ranchers and homeowners who had homes along the border with people traipsing through their backyards. There were also stories about drop houses in Phoenix, where migrants were kidnapped and being held ransom until their relatives would pay money. You’d hear about local law enforcement going into these suburban neighborhoods and having dozens of migrants come out of these drop houses. So there were these very real intersections where illegal immigration became quite visible to Arizonans.

But, also, there were demographic shifts. Not only were there waves of migration over the border, but there were also retirees moving to Arizona from other parts of the United States, many of them not initially from the border region. So this might have been even more alarming to some of those constituents who became regular voters, changing the political landscape of the state. And I think those dynamics created an environment in which Arizona’s legislature became a leader in the country in passing state laws. As Arizona’s legislature started trailblazing—and really, Arizona was a laboratory for innovation on what you could do at a state level on immigration—that drew a lot of focus and attention and helped Arizona get this moniker as a kind of “ground zero” for the illegal immigration debate.

What have been the consequences of Arpaio’s notoriety and Arizona’s battles over immigration legislation for the state’s reputation and its economy?

Even before Arizona’s most famous immigration enforcement law SB-1070, which was passed in 2010, Arizona passed a law that took effect in 2008 that mandated the use of E-Verify in hiring. This had the consequence of making it a lot harder, if you were in the country without authorization, to get hired in Arizona. There’s evidence that in the wake of that new law, unauthorized immigrants left the state in large numbers. Though what’s hard about looking at cause-and-effect trends of Arizona's immigration policy is that much of the timing coincided with other trends like the recession, so it’s a little hard to dissect the outcomes.

After SB-1070 passed in 2010 was really when people outside of the state began to take notice of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration agenda—though these policies had actually been happening for several years. There was then a big push to boycott the state—and, again, it’s hard to tease out cause and effect—but we do know that Arizona depends on tourism, which saw a dramatic drop after SB-1070. There were musicians and artists, for instance, who boycotted the state, and the number of conventions booked in Arizona fell. Also, wealthy Mexicans who come to the United States to shop is a huge industry in border states, and there was a drop there, too.

There’s been a really interesting reaction, in the last couple years, where there’s been a sense from the business community that being known as anti-illegal immigration hasn’t helped Arizona’s brand from an economic standpoint. As a result, there was a big push from business groups in the wake of SB-1070 to convince the state legislature and the governor not to pass more immigration laws. And there hasn’t been anything big since SB-1070. What we’re seeing now is a much more bipartisan effort to court Mexico as a trade partner and rebuild the bilateral relationship between Arizona and Mexico. What’s interesting is that today, in 2017, there’s a lot more rhetoric and activity around, “How do we improve our relationship with Mexico?” than, “What can we possibly do against illegal immigration?” A lot of that work with Mexico is repairing the relationship in the wake of SB-1070 because there are many people in Arizona who believe damage was done and feel that’s not a relationship that Arizona can afford to lose.

Some of the fiercest criticism of the immigration policies coming out of the new administration has come from big tech companies in Silicon Valley. With Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale becoming testing grounds for self-driving cars and Phoenix being shortlisted for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, do you think Arizona’s reputation has changed enough where Phoenix can be seen as a hub for technological innovation, especially when we start thinking about what the state and its cities are going to look like 10 to 20 years down the road?

Recently, we’ve seen other states slapped with boycotts over controversial state laws. There was a boycott of North Carolina and some groups are now restricting travel to Texas because of SB-4, meaning Arizona’s no longer in the spotlight. Many of Arizona’s immigration policies have been rolled back by federal courts. Plus, several of the politicians who were most associated with those policies are no longer in office. I think many of the people tasked with recruiting businesses to the state feel that by not really beating the drum on illegal immigration in the last several years, and by shifting the focus to how to have a better relationship with Mexico, the conversation has changed and has allowed some of these new opportunities with tech companies. And I don’t think you’re seeing, in those recruitment conversations, that the downside of relocating to Arizona is necessarily the anti-immigrant reputation, while that would have been a major part of the conversation a few years ago. Plus, when we think about 10 to 20 years from now, the demographics of Arizona will be shifting to be more Latino and less white.

In researching for your book and reporting for KJZZ, who are some of the people you’ve met who are working toward a different reputation for Arizona when it comes to immigration reform?

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been following a number of Latino activists who became active, really, 12 years ago, which coincides with big marches across the United States against the Sensenbrenner bill. And so, in a way, Arizona’s story is very much tied into this national story of pushback against anti-immigrant legislation. But in Arizona, it also coincided with a new period of state-led enforcement as well. And what’s apparent about the grassroots activism that formed in Phoenix in opposition is that it really brought together people with different sensibilities and philosophies into one coalition. So there are some who thought that civil disobedience and very active protests were what they wanted to focus on, and then there were other groups that focused on civic engagement and trying to register more Latino voters in order to push the political dialogue that way. There were still others who were interested in bringing in and making the coalition even larger to include other groups, like the business community. For example, some leaders in the fast food industry and the construction industry sought to push back against some of Arizona’s laws because they affected both their own ability to recruit workers and their business models.

What happened in Arizona was these groups began to work together, and, actually, some of those individuals went in to other states to help with similar issues. When Alabama, for example, was dealing with anti-illegal immigration legislation, some Arizona activists went there to show them how to organize on the ground in opposition. We also saw legal groups coming in, and a lot of the legislation that defined Arizona’s experiment in this arena was ultimately, eventually, struck down in the courts. It’s a very long process, though, so there was a lag. But there seemed to be a combination of grassroots, civic engagement, litigation- and coalition-building that some people are looking to export to other states.

You recently wrote for The Guardian with Terry Greene Sterling, the co-author of your forthcoming book, about how Arpaio developed a special bond with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Despite their shared brand of nativist fringe populism, Maricopa County voters ended Arpaio’s tenure as sheriff in the same year that both the county and the state went for Trump. What do you think might have influenced these election results, and might there be something to learn from Arpaio’s defeat?

This is a really interesting question because we know that in Maricopa County some voters split their tickets to vote for Trump for president and for Arpaio’s opponent, a Democrat, Paul Penzone. Arpaio lost by 13 points. And what that tells us is that—and what I would hear anecdotally from voters was—even some voters who had voted for Arpaio in the past, and maybe even still liked him, felt like his time was over. And there were other voters who, I think, felt disenchanted with his approach, in that he had refused to back down in this racial profiling lawsuit, which turned into a contempt case, which had the result of two different civil trials with attorneys’ fees and court-ordered reforms that were incredibly expensive to taxpayers. County taxpayers were on the hook for tens of millions of dollars as a result of this racial profiling litigation, in which he repeatedly lost in court. For people who had fiscally conservative values, there was a point at which this was no longer a politician they could support. Arpaio supporters insist the Justice Department’s October announcement that they would prosecute him for criminal contempt of court unfairly swayed the election—but many analysts said he was facing an uphill battle before that.

In terms of lessons we can learn, we still need to drill more into some of that precinct-level election data in Maricopa County to try to understand all the nuances. At the same time, there seemed to be a certain fatigue that set in, with voters not wanting to hear about conflict and immigration-related litigation over and over. I think that’s interesting in light of Trump, given how much of his immigration policy agenda is winding up in the courts: Might this fatigue carry over to the national level as well? The financial pain is felt much differently on a county taxpayer than it is on a national scale, of course, but that’s something that will be interesting to watch.


Emily Fritcke was a program associate at Future Tense. She graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with a BA in English literature and history.