RUSSELL PEARCE is the quintessential Arizona Republican. He wears stars-and-stripes shirts and has clips of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan on his website. He loves guns, his family, his Mormon faith, his country and the law, which he enforced for many years as deputy sheriff of Maricopa County. He jokes that being Republican, and thus not having a heart, saved his life when he got shot in the chest once. But his main passion is illegal immigrants, whom he calls “invaders”. He loathed them even before his son Sean, also a sheriff’s deputy, got shot by one. But now it is personal.
Mr Pearce, a state senator, has sponsored an Arizona law that, if enacted, would be the toughest in the country. It is so brazen it has caused outrage. This week it passed the last hurdles in the state legislature. As The Economist went to press, it was awaiting the signature of Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer.
Illegal immigration is a federal crime. Mr Pearce’s law, however, would also make it a state crime and would require the police, as opposed to federal agents, to make arrests and check the immigration status of individuals who look suspicious to them. Citizens who think their cops are not vigilant enough would be encouraged to sue their cities or counties, and no city or county may remain a “sanctuary” where this law is not enforced.
In Mr Pearce’s opinion his law merely “removes the handcuffs” from the police and sheriffs’ deputies so they can do their work. To a great many other people, however, it screams racial profiling. Arizona is an overwhelmingly white state, and virtually all illegal immigrants—perhaps about half a million in the state—are Hispanic. Whom else would cops suspect and arrest but the brown ones? Even American Latinos who happen to be out without their driving licence might be at risk.
“Illegal is not a race; it is a crime,” Mr Pearce likes to retort. And many Arizonans agree with him. Arizona has become the main crossing point for Mexicans, some of whom have brought Mexico’s drug violence with them. A few weeks ago a prominent white rancher near the border was killed, possibly by a smuggler or illegal immigrant. Republicans run Arizona and are now in a state of hysteria, competing with one another to deal most toughly with the threat. Even Arizona’s senior senator, John McCain, who once resisted demonising illegal immigrants but is now facing a challenge in the primaries for his seat, has come out in favour of Mr Pearce’s law.
Arizona’s Latinos, by contrast, have not mobilised politically. They make up 30% of the state’s population but only 12% of the electorate. And many are from families that have been American for generations, no longer speak Spanish and are ambivalent toward the new arrivals. They are thus very different from Latinos in Texas and California. During the 1990s attempts to turn back illegals at the border complied with voter initiatives against undocumented immigrants in California motivated Latinos there to become a political force which Republicans fear to cross. Arizona, however, may still be a generation behind.
Nonetheless, the Republicans are playing with fire. The entire country is now watching. Roger Mahony is archbishop of America’s largest, and very Hispanic, archdiocese, Los Angeles, and will soon be succeeded by a Latino. He calls Mr Pearce’s bill “the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant law” and wonders whether Arizonans are “now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques”.