The One-Man Wall: How a Single Arizona Legislator's Obsession Has Changed Immigration Policy for the Worse

Article excerpt

RUSSELL PEARCE WAS FAR from home the day his son got shot. Minutes from the White House, the state legislator was preaching the Pearce gospel. "They're taking jobs away from Americans," he told a small audience at a prominent DC think tank. "Health care systems are failing. The education system has imploded. Eighty percent of the violent crimes in Phoenix are involving illegal aliens." Pearce speaks softly, and he has a sad-puppy look about him when he mentions the men and women he has devoted his life to pushing back behind the Mexican border. "You can't continue to pander and have pathetic policies that hurt America."

Moments later, a Brookings Institution staffer handed Pearce a note instructing him to call his wife LuAnne--"now." Pearce's son Sean, a sheriff's deputy in Arizona's Maricopa County, was being airlifted to a hospital with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. Plane delays and red lights slowed an excruciating trip to a crawl. LuAnne called back with an update. "You're not going to believe this," she said. "Sean was shot by an illegal alien.'"

Rep. Russell Pearce talks little about himself and much about state politics, but his personal life has an uncanny way of colliding with his political obsessions. Like his son, Pearce bears a wound from his days in law enforcement: 30 years ago a Latino gang member put a bullet in his right hand, leaving it permanently disfigured. In a state where most people--Latino or otherwise--are transplants, the Republican lawmaker can honestly say that he has been observing the transformation of Arizona since the day he was born. For decades, he has watched, horrified, as his native city spread like syrup over the pancake-colored desert. Arizona is now the second fastest growing state in the nation, and the Phoenix-Mesa metropolitan region, where Pearce was born, raised, and elected, is the fastest growing region in the state.

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Sun-seeking natives drove most of that growth, but over the last decade Arizona has become a major corridor for unauthorized immigrants. In the mid-1990s, federal authorities took Vietnam-era landing mats and erected a steel wall between Tijuana and California. Border agents, once a rare sight, began to dot the more populated Texas and California borders. So those who aspired to work in America charted a course right through the middle, braving the Sonoran Desert in hopes of avoiding armed guards. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 10 percent of Arizona's work force in 2005 was undocumented, twice the national average.

Pearce aims to change that, one way or another. He has been a state legislator for only eight years, but he has used nearly every political position he has held, from deputy sheriff to director of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Division, to crack down on undocumented workers. He wants to end birthright citizenship, slash immigration quotas, and throw up more walls. He has proposed that officials at the state's Child Protective Services be required to root out undocumented children. The representative of a city named Mesa, Pearce co-authored an initiative to ban the use of Spanish in most official communications. Most of all, he thinks anyone who puts "profits above patriotism" ought to be kept from doing business in the state of Arizona. In the summer of 2007, Pearce finally got his wish.

In July of last year the Arizona legislature passed Pearce's Fair and Legal Employers Act, also known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, the most severe state-level anti-illegal immigration measure in the country. Under the bill, any company caught "knowingly" hiring someone not authorized to work could have its business license suspended. A second offense would bring permanent revocation. All employers would be required to use E-Verify, a federal electronic verification that is voluntary in the other 49 states. (See "Get in Line!," page 38.)

Gov. …