SAN DIEGO — New Mexico’s governor says it is a step backward. Texas isn’t touching it. And California? Never again.
Arizona’s sweeping new law empowering police to question and arrest anyone they suspect is in the United States illegally is finding little support in the other states along the Mexican border.
Among the reasons given: California, New Mexico and Texas have long-established, politically powerful Hispanic communities; they have deeper cultural ties to Mexico that influence their attitudes toward immigrants; and they have little appetite for a polarizing battle over immigration like one that played out in California in the 1990s.
But perhaps the biggest reason of all is that the illegal flow of people across the border is seen as a more acute problem, and a more dangerous one, in Arizona.
In the 1990s, the U.S. government added fences, stadium lights and more agents to the border in Southern California and Texas, forcing a shift in the flow of illegal immigrants that has turned Arizona into the single biggest gateway for people sneaking into the country from Mexico. The influx has led to a sharp increase in kidnappings, home invasions and other violence tied to drugs and human smuggling.
“The flow has moved east, and the debate has moved east, as well,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
Arizona’s population of illegal immigrants has increased fivefold since 1990, to around 500,000. The Tucson region replaced San Diego as the top place for Border Patrol arrests in 1998 and accounts for nearly half the total. And Phoenix has been dubbed the kidnapping capital of the United States, with an average of one abduction per day in recent years.
The other border states have older, larger and more culturally entrenched and politically connected Hispanic populations.
California and Texas were forced to deal with illegal immigration decades ago. Both states saw surges in the 1980s because of Mexico’s shaky economy and the civil wars that wracked Central America. But many who entered illegally became voters under a 1986 federal law that granted amnesty to 2.7 million people.
That political clout is evident today, with city councils from Oakland to San Diego condemning the Arizona law and 50,000 people demonstrating in Los Angeles on May 1 in support of immigrants. Wednesday, Los Angeles became the nation’s largest city to boycott Arizona over the law, when the City Council voted 13-1 for sanctions that could include canceling $8 million in contracts.
The New Mexico Legislature is 44 percent Hispanic, followed by California at 23 percent, Texas at 20 percent and Arizona at 16 percent, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Angelica Salas, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a girl and later obtained legal status, noted that Los Angeles was filled with families with members in the country both legally and illegally.
“In the end, it’s political suicide if you launch an attack on the undocumented,” said Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “You’re basically attacking the very electorate that you want to get you into office.”
Similarly, in Texas, “Hispanics and people of Spanish or Hispanic descent have lived among us since the beginning of time. We’ve all sort of shared this state together and the dream of what it means to be a Texan,” said Eric Bearse, a former aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Arizona didn’t draw large numbers of Hispanics until more recently, and the bonds of affection to Mexico may have been weakened by the huge influx of retirees and others from the North and the Midwest in recent decades.
“In some ways, these are people who don’t want to deal with this,” said Lisa Magana, an associate professor of transborder studies at Arizona State University.
California went through a bruising battle in 1994 with passage of Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from public education and other services. Key provisions were struck down in court, but the episode damaged the Republican Party and galvanized Hispanics, leading to citizenship and voter registration drives.
“California has been through the wringer and basically decided that this kind of stuff just doesn’t fly,” said Erik Lee, associate director of Arizona State University’s North American Center for Transborder Studies.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has condemned the Arizona law, saying it is “very clear that this is not something that we will do here in California.” In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, said the measure went “against the democratic ideals of this country.” And Perry, a pistol-packing, tea-party-courting Republican, said such a law “would not be the right direction for Texas” and would distract law enforcement from fighting other crimes.
Immigration is still a hot-button issue across border states. In California, efforts to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants have repeatedly stalled. The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch has tried for years to enforce a ban on landlords’ renting to illegal immigrants.
Two Texas state lawmakers plan to introduce legislation similar to Arizona’s law, and California’s insurance commissioner has supported it in his quest for the GOP nomination for governor.
Still, strategists on both sides of the debate expect Arizona’s law to resonate most in states far from the border where illegal immigration is relatively new. The Immigration Policy Center, a critic of Arizona’s law, said at least 12 states were considering similar legislation, including Maryland, Ohio and Utah.
“The immigration issue is no longer a border issue or problem,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, a San Diego Republican and a hard-liner on illegal immigration. “This issue runs so deep and it’s so broad you never know where it will pop up next.”
Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, and Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.
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