A Desert Sandstorm; Immigration Protests Roil the Arizona Senate Race

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Murr (With Jonathan Darman)

When 100,000 protesters nearly shut down Phoenix last week, Jim Pederson headed for the border. A Democrat running for the Senate in Arizona, he wanted to highlight laxity on the U.S.-Mexican line--and blame it on his opponent, the Republican incumbent, Jon Kyl. Wandering through a patchwork of gap-filled 15-foot fencing and three-foot-high barbed wire, he assailed Kyl for not doing more to beef up border security. "This berm," Pederson said, pointing at a foot-high pile of sand, "is the only thing keeping people out of the United States."

Welcome to ground zero in the immigration wars of 2006, where even one of the Senate's fiercest immigration hard-liners is getting blamed for broken borders. In two terms in the Senate, Kyl has made immigration his signature issue: he's called for tough crackdowns on illegal aliens and criticized the White House's guest-worker plan. Ordinarily, he'd be the one in hiking boots in the desert, calling for drastic change.

But with marchers on the street and Minutemen on the border, nothing is ordinary in Arizona politics today. The state sees nearly half of the illegal crossings into the country each year, and nearly 600,000 of the 1.2 million undocumented workers arrested last year were found inside its boundaries. The crisis has taken over the Senate race, with both candidates trying to present themselves as the face of security and stability. Kyl holds a large lead, but immigration hysteria could help make it "a close race," says Arizona State University political analyst Bruce Merrill.

Other Arizona races are tightening, too. In the Eighth Congressional District, where the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe could help determine control of the House, candidates in both parties are trying to out-tough each other on immigration. Democrats are also going after GOP Rep. J. D. Hayworth, painting him as an extremist who favors vigilantism (Hayworth has defended the Minutemen but backs government enforcement). Both parties see the state's battles as a preview of the national fight to come. "This whole country is about to go 100 percent certifiable nuts over immigration," says one Democratic congressional aide who asked not to be identified so as not to speak on behalf of the party. …