Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Cronkite Border Initiative at ASU. A depth-reporting project examining immigration and how it affects Arizona and the nation at large.
PHOENIX -- It has been three years since the state of Arizona was embattled in scathing nationwide calls for boycotts over the passage of one of the most aggressive anti-illegal immigration laws ever enacted.
The state’s highly controversial S.B. 1070 law, signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in 2010, produced a significant backlash for the state, leaving a sour attitude toward Arizona across the country and in the minds of Latinos. And while the calls for boycotts of Arizona have diminished, the fire surrounding the issue of immigration has hardly cooled. Activists in the state are still fiercely focusing their attention on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and toward repairing Arizona’s reputation.
“We've worked hard all along and we still have some work to do,” said Petra Falcon, with the pro-immigration activist group Promise Arizona. “Right now Congress has the time in this calendar year to still act on immigration reform and that's the message, that we want them to act.”
As soon as S.B. 1070 was passed it immediately faced criticism over some of the law’s provisions. Among those criticized were the requirements that immigrants carry proof they were in the country legally, which raised concerns that it would lead to racial profiling, and that officers could arrest someone without a warrant if they were suspected of being in the country illegally.
For many Latinos living in Arizona, the law was a consistent source of worry.
“Back then we were scared every time my mom drove or my dad drove and a sheriff passed (by) us,” said Leslie Meraz, 20, who came to Arizona with her mother as a child in 2000. “Even cops, we would be scared because we would think, ‘if they stop us for (our) color or something, what are we going to do?’”
Meraz originally entered the U.S. legally on a visitor’s visa with her mother. They had intended to return to Mexico after their visas expired, but her uncle insisted they stay. “My uncle was like, ‘they could have more opportunities, they could learn another language and that’s going to be good,’” she said.
Meraz and her mother were eventually joined in the U.S. by her father and two brothers. She said as undocumented immigrants they lived in constant fear of discovery and deportation. Living in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio conducted neighborhood raids looking for undocumented immigrants, made life difficult for her family.
“My mom was so scared she kept looking (out) the window, ”she said. “She really thought that (Arpaio) was going to show up at our house and take us.”
The family’s fears were compounded by S.B. 1070, which Meraz said made it too easy for someone to be stopped by police simply to check their legal status.
“Supposedly for one simple little thing – anything (Arpaio) could stop you for. Like, if your light’s not working,” she said. “He could just tell us (to) fix it, but he just finds any reason to stop you.”
Meraz has since found some respite in that she is a DREAMer, one of hundreds of thousands of youth brought to the country illegally as children who have been given a two-year reprieve from deportation by President Barack Obama.
The aftermath of the passage of S.B. 1070 took a toll not only on individuals such as Meraz and their families but on Arizona’s economy as well.
One sector of the economy hit hard around the time of S.B. 1070 was Arizona’s visitation and tourism industry.
“During the 2009 (to) 2010 period, we did see a slight decline in visitation--overall visitation--and an economic impact,” said Kiva Couchon, director of communications and public information officer for the Arizona Office of Tourism.
One estimate from the progressive think-tank Center for American Progress said canceled conventions as a result of S.B. 1070 cost the state $217 million and 4,236 jobs.
Couchon though, said it is difficult to say whether that dip in visitation was due to the law. She said her office believes the dip in tourism during those years appears to have been more affected by the country’s poor economy.
“The purposes of that decline, or what caused that decline is mostly, from our research, we can tell was from the state of the economy during that time,” she said. “There were many other factors at that same period that were happening that influenced that decline, but for the most part, for us and our research, it was because of the state of the national economy.”
However, Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said laws like S.B. 1070 have had a strong effect on the state’s image, which in turn has had an effect on Arizona’s economy.
“Some companies don't come here because the question whether or not we treat people fairly ... and that question gets extended beyond the immigration issue,” he said. “We're getting painted with a very broad brush right now because of our lack leadership on this issue.”
Broome is one of several community leaders in Phoenix that recently signed an open letter to congressional leaders urging them to take up the issue of immigration reform. He said immigrants have played a major role in Arizona’s economy and help drive business to the state.
“A lot of companies, like eBay and PayPal are here because they wanted a bilingual workforce,” he said. “So we know some of our best high-tech employers wanted people who could manage both languages because their customers have two languages.”
Broome said securing immigration reform on a national level is vital to the economic well being of Arizona.
“We need a path forward on this issue. The issue is certainly economical - it's about our future,” Broome said. “65,000 businesses in our state have been built by Latinos that are either directly immigrants or their parents were immigrants.”
Denise Resnik, co-founder of the pro-immigration reform organization Real Arizona Coalition, also signed the open letter to Congress in November and said the lack of immigration reform has had an affect on what she called Arizona’s “brand.”
“Immigration reform is definitely about our humanity, it's about our security and it's about our economy,” she said. “We have to consider our brand as Arizona ... We took a major hit when more than 6 million media hits have been flashed out there about Arizona being out there on immigration reform, and not in very kind ways.”
Resnik said immigration reform will play an important role in the economic impact that the 90,000 DREAMers currently living in Arizona will have on the state.
“When we think and project out by 2030, those DREAMers can have an $18.4 billion economic impact on our state and our country, representing 84,000 jobs,” she said.
Much of the uproar against Arizona and its leaders who enacted S.B. 1070 seemed to have quieted some after the United States Supreme Court struck down most of the law’s strict provisions in 2012. The high court ruled several of the law’s provisions were preempted by federal law, including the most controversial parts that prompted concerns it would lead to widespread racial profiling.
Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted, “Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
Broome said he believes the Arizona leaders who enacted S.B. 1070 were forced to act because of a lack of federal intervention, and as a result, the law has made many of them easy targets for criticism.
“I think the fact that the state took action was really a by-product of the lack of action on the federal level, even Senate Bill 1070 was the bi-product of Washington D.C. not doing anything,” he said. “So it's easy to judge state leaders for 1070, but they were pushed into a solution that they shouldn't have been asked to act on.”
The striking down of these provisions was seen as a major victory for the Latino population around the country and caused a response in Arizona. Top leaders in the state, such as Governor Brewer and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, have returned to meeting with top Mexican leaders in efforts to strengthen economic ties between the U.S. and Mexico.
In an apparent demographic shift and call for state leaders to moderate their position, former Republican State Senate Leader Russell Pearce, the primary architect of S.B. 1070 and other anti-illegal immigration laws, was recalled in November 2011.
Jerry Lewis, also a Republic candidate, had defeated Pearce on a more moderate immigration platform and served in the state Senate until losing re-election in 2013.
“I felt that we're being misportrayed as a state, as a city, as a party and people saw us as ignorant,” Lewis said. “As a citizen here for, at the time, 31 years, and as a Republican all my life, I felt that we needed to help people realize that this is a faction that feels this way (and) we're not all the same.”
Lewis said his moderate stance has opened him up to criticism by some members of his own party, but that strict immigration policies were causing damage to the state.
“We may not like the idea that we have to recall a very good man to achieve this ... but the way we want to do business and the way we want to be portrayed is being threatened by some of the hardline stances that are being taken here and something (needed) to be done,” he said.
Lewis said he believed the backlash against Arizona was an unintended consequence of the state’s immigration laws and that Arizonans desired change.
“Whether it was the change of the Senate President or whether it was change of parties, I think people were tired of being labeled in this state as being ignorant, as being racist and being backwards and behind the times,” he said.
In Washington D.C., Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake are both part of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” which has been leading the push for congressional comprehensive immigration reform in Washington.
And while many activists in Arizona do not see the Senate immigration reform proposal as a perfect solution, some activists such as Mariana Sandoval, a member of the Service Employees International Union and herself a migrant, see it as a good place to start.
“It's not the ideal thing, but you know, it's most of what we want,” she said. “We want a pathway to citizenship, we want to keep families together, we want to fair neighbor practices for workers and so, for the most part, it meets the criteria.”
Republican State Senator Bob Worsley said he feels having two sitting Senators on the forefront of national immigration reform has been beneficial for the state’s image. He said it’s also had a positive impact on the ties between Arizona and its No. 1 trading partner, Mexico.
“I think it was huge to have our Senators leading the charge,” he said. “We're not at war with Mexico. Too often the very, very conservative voices in our party - you'd think that we were fighting a war with them, and it's just time to get over that and let's get something done that's pragmatic and needs to be done.”
Moreover, where Arizona once was leading the country in arrests and detentions of illegal immigrants, the state has swung in the other direction.
In May this year, Sheriff Arpaio was assigned an independent monitor by a federal judge to oversee the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in response to allegations of racial profiling. Allegations which Arpaio and his attorney, Tim Casey, have vigorously denied and challenged.
“The MCSO has always had the position that It never has and never will use race to make any law enforcement decisions,” Casey told Phoenix radio station KTAR following the decision.
According to a report released in November from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York, Arizona has had the sharpest drop nationwide in immigration prosecutions over the last year.
The report showed that Arizona has had a 21.6 percent drop in immigration prosecutions in the first 11 months of 2013 as compared to 2012. That contrasts with Arizona’s neighboring border state, New Mexico, which has had a nearly 50 percent increase in prosecutions in 2013 over 2012. Last year, Arizona also had the highest rate of prosecutions in the country but now has dropped to third, which is the same ranking the state had five years ago before S.B. 1070.
These changes in Arizona’s political landscape have recently seemed to help repair the state’s damaged reputation in the minds of many Latinos.
“Instead of being the laughingstock that I think we were back in 2010 and 2011, I believe people now realize that Arizona is really a great place,” Lewis said. “It's very welcoming ... the climate, the culture ... all those wonderful, wonderful virtues of the state, they're still there.”
That view is mirrored on a national level in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that “66 percent of Mexicans said they viewed the U.S. favorably compared to 30 percent that did not.” Those numbers represent a marked increased from the 48 percent of Mexicans that had a negative view of the U.S. in 2010, while only 44 percent that had a positive view.
In fact, of those surveyed, the report show more Mexicans have a favorable view of the United States today than even before S.B. 1070 was enacted. But while the outlook appears brighter for immigrants in Arizona, for many the fight is far from over.
Currently, much focus in the state has been on securing the future of DREAMers and those with deferred-action status.
Deferred-action is a 2-year status that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 and who meet certain requirements, to be allowed to work in the country.
In certain states, immigrants who have qualified for deferred-action receive a work permit that can also allow them to receive reduced tuition for college, but in Arizona, that battle is still being waged.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne recently filed a lawsuit against the Maricopa County Community College District to require the district to raise tuition rates for those with deferred-action statuses.
The lawsuit is based off Proposition 300, which Arizona voters approved in 2006 and denies in-state tuition rates, financial aid, tuition assistance or “any other type of financial assistance that is subsidized or paid” with state money to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or is without lawful immigration status, according to the proposition’s language.
If the suit were successful, those with deferred-action statuses would see a rate increase from $81 per credit to more than $300 per credit, said Tom Gariepy, district director of marketing and communications for the Maricopa Community College District.
Gariepy said currently students with deferred-action status are able to attend any of the 10 MCCCD campuses with in-state tuition rates because they consider the federal work permit to be proof of legal residency.
“The law says when you determine lawful status you will use these documents, and if a person provides any one of them they have achieved lawful status in your eyes,” he said.
After proving legal residency in the United States, students must still show they have “lived in Maricopa County for 50 days and lived in the State of Arizona for at least one year prior to class start” to receive the reduced tuition price, however, according to MCCCD’s website for residency qualifications.
The in-state tuition rate helps many DREAMers, such as Meraz who attends Phoenix College, to afford college. Recently Meraz and other immigrants have been involved in numerous gatherings out front, and inside of Horne’s offices in protest of the lawsuit.
“He wants to actually raise it up 300 percent, which is impossible,” Meraz said. “It’s like practically forcing us to drop out of college because there’s no way we can afford that.”
Dana Saar, one of the five governing board members from MCCCD said he disagrees with the lawsuit and that the state should focus more on ways to keep deferred-action students and their skills in Arizona.
“We have a gap of skills here in Arizona, and it goes from top to bottom. We need people that get educated here ... to stay here,” he said. “To take the talent, and the skills they've got and while they've been here and apply them to our efforts in the state of Arizona.”
Saar said the district intends to fight Horne’s lawsuit and that MCCCD should continue to offer deferred-action students in-state tuition.
“We feel strong that what we've done for years and what we're continuing to do is OK,” he said. “They have legal status, we've always given in-state tuition to those with legal status, so we'll just have to wait and see what the courts end up saying.”
As for the state’s public universities, the Associate Press reported in November that the Arizona Board of Regents rejected a proposal to offer deferred-action students in-state tuition at all three schools because they believed it would not hold up under challenge.
For state leaders such as Broome, immigration reform is a major economic issue facing Arizona and that non-action by Congress is no longer acceptable.
“We do have a responsibility to expect and ask of them to take action and to solve our problems. That's why they ran, that's why they got elected, that's why they're in Washington D.C.,” he said. “We should expect action for economic reasons, economic reasons that the Latino community is powerful force of our workforce.”
While for activists such as Falcon, she said the calls for reform will not subside until there is a pathway to citizenship.
“What our elected officials need to pay attention to is that a majority of Americas and the majority of Arizonans support immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship,” she said.