Two decades ago, when Arizona voters rejected a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the NFL yanked the Super Bowl from suburban Phoenix. The boycott marked a major turning point in the journey to nationwide acceptance of the King holiday.
Today, Arizona, a state full of travelers from across the Americas, is being boycotted again over a new immigration law said to encourage racial profiling. Yet just as the King debate changed hearts from average people to a president, Arizona's troubles are positioned to again play a critical role in the twisting evolution of American race relations.
"The whole country has taken notice," said Marshall Trimble, Arizona's state historian, who dislikes the new law but thinks something had to be done about illegal immigration. "I don't think people realized how serious a problem it is."
What good could possibly come of this bad situation? A lot, it turns out. Because suddenly the entire nation is having a huge Arizona conversation, from rallies on the streets to voices on the airwaves — and there are signs of compromise instead of confrontation.
No effective system
The emotional outcry could, counterintuitively, improve the country's immigration situation in the long run by addressing directly a problem Americans have faced for a long time: We have no effective system for dealing with people who risk everything and break the law to come here.
"It's a deplorable situation. But it will have an energizing, mobilizing effect," said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Arizona law, he said, has caused a conversation that otherwise would have remained largely undiscussed.
Polls show that most Arizonans and a slight majority of Americans are fine with the new law, which requires police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally. Arizona's GOP-dominated legislature passed it with no Democratic support; objections over racial profiling got buried beneath fears of high-profile immigrant crimes and frustration over federal inaction.
Now, all sides of the political spectrum are weighing in. And some stances aren't as predictable as you might think.
Most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants are Hispanic. With millions of unemployed Americans considering jobs they once would have ignored, some say these immigrants are taking money out of their pockets. They want the immigrants removed — but how should they be sorted out from the approximately 40 million Hispanics who are U.S. citizens?
"There's no easy way," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity. "They live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, work in the same places, speak the same language or not speak the same language. They may be related."
New signs of compromise
Although President Barack Obama has said there will be no immigration-reform bill before the election, there are new signs of compromise — signs that the conversation is taking root.
Democrats have proposed a reform framework that is tougher on enforcement and would create new Social Security cards linked to fingerprints. Some prominent Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed reservations about Arizona's approach. Even Karl Rove, the GOP political strategist who engineered George W. Bush's victories, has some doubts.
"I'm concerned about the whole idea of carrying papers and always having to be able to prove your citizenship," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. "That brings up some shades of some other regimes that weren't necessarily helpful to democracy."
The law "creates unintended consequences," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is from Mexico. "It's difficult for me to imagine how you're going to enforce this law. It places a significant burden on local law enforcement and you have civil liberties issues that are significant as well."
Such concerns changed Arizona's law before it was a week old. Among other tweaks, the word "solely" was removed from the phrase saying police "may not solely consider race, color or national origin," to reassure critics that race would not be considered at all.
Arizona has always been a place for travelers and wanderers. Many of its residents have moved there from other states. A 2007 Pew study said the state had the nation's second-highest percentage of transplants over the preceding three-year period.
‘That was a wake-up call’
But Arizona has never had many black residents, which Trimble said may have contributed to the 1991 vote against a King holiday. Most pro football players are black, which led to the Super Bowl boycott.
"That was a wake-up call," said Trimble, the state historian. "A lot of people stepped up and said, 'Wait a minute, Arizona is making itself an embarrassment to the country. And it was."
Two Republicans who urged voters to reconsider were Arizona Sen. John McCain and former President Ronald Reagan. Both men had once opposed a federal King holiday. In 1993, when it came up again, 60 percent of Arizona voters chose to back the holiday.
Certainly there are differences between that issue and today's problem. "They were Americans," Trimble noted of King and his fellow crusaders for equal rights.
Arizona's 460,000 illegal immigrants are almost all Latinos. Yet Arizona also has 2 million Latinos who are U.S. citizens, about 30 percent of the state's population.
Latinos also make up almost 30 percent of pro baseball players. In the Arizona conversation, they too are speaking up: They want the law changed. Their All-Star Game next year is scheduled for Phoenix.
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