The legacy of SB1070: The rise of Arizona’s new political order




SB1070 protest 2010
Demonstrators protest Arizona's new immigration law outside the Arizona Capitol building on April 23, 2010. Protesters said the law will lead to racial profiling and civil rights abuses against the Hispanic community. Photo by John Moore | Getty Images

The power base in Arizona has shifted in the past 20 years, and we have the state’s Republican Party to both thank and blame for that.

We can blame the Republicans for jumping on the anti-bilingual education bandwagon in the early 2000s with the passage of Proposition 203, a first-stab legislative attempt at rolling back the re-browning of Arizona. (I say “re-browning” because even a cursory reading of Arizona history reminds us that it wasn’t always a haven for snowbirds, Tea Partiers and Clinton-hating Trumpsters.)

We can blame Republicans for taking a separate legislative cudgel to the state’s fast-growing Latino population in 2004, in the form of Proposition 200, a ballot initiative requiring voters show IDs at polling places that supporters claimed would keep non-citizens from voting illegally (virtually no one in AZ has ever voted illegally) but was really aimed at intimidating voters of color – African Americans, Native Americans and especially Latinos, who had long been underrepresented in state’s halls of power.

In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, we can blame Republicans for using the horror of the terrorist attacks to drive an exponential boost in the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to block undocumented immigrants from crossing north to fill jobs that most Americans still think are beneath them. The hyper-militarization of federal law enforcement at the border was less a legitimate part of our international counter-assault on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda than it was a thinly-veiled attack on the aspiring multitudes drawn here by the promise of better paying jobs and democratic freedoms. 

For the record, terrorists did not then and still do not come across the U.S.-Mexico border – regardless of what the occupant of the Oval Office would have you believe – if for no other reason, I suspect, because Mexican narcotraffickers would shoot them dead on site. Drug dealers are territorial that way. 

Ironically, many of the jobs filled by undocumented immigrants in the era of COVID-19 have been officially deemed “essential” to sustaining our all but paralyzed economy. The country’s food chain would collapse, and already long food lines would grow longer, if farm laborers or meat and poultry plant workers (many of whom are at greater risk of infection by the coronavirus) were to stop working. 

We also have Arizona Republicans to blame for Senate Bill 1070, infamously known as the “show us your papers” law. The 2010 law – actually a collection of draconian anti-immigrant laws, most of which were individually rejected by lawmakers in previous years – was at once ahead of its time and a throwback to pre-civil rights America. The law was part Trumpian utopia and part reincarnation of the Jim Crow-era, except that SB1070’s goal wasn’t just to keep an entire category of people “in their place,” but to expel them from our community altogether.

SB1070 was largely the brainchild of state Sen. Russell Pearce, the self-described head of the Arizona’s Tea Party Republicans. A wily, bigoted bully of a man, Pearce instigated a swell of anti-immigrant hatred here and across the country between 2000 and 2010 as he rose to become the state’s most powerful politician. The bill would serve as a political life raft for Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who assumed the office after Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In early 2010, Brewer was facing a hotly contested GOP primary and her campaign was foundering until she decided to join Pearce’s white-nationalist road show. To hear Pearce tell it (and, yes, he’s still at it), brown people – not just immigrants, but brown people and brown foreigners in particular – are to blame for everything from the spread of disease to child molestation, rape, murder, and the destruction of the white-American way of life. 

For her part, Brewer decided to go along to get ahead. Before SB1070 passed, she was an opportunistic, run-of-the-mill xenophobe who backed the state’s voter ID law in 2004 – not because voter fraud was actually a problem, but because, as Brewer claimed without evidence, non-citizens might cast an illegal ballot.

Laws like Proposition 200, Proposition 203 and SB1070 did not single out Latinos by name, but the implementation of the statutes delivered a clear message: “Don’t be uppity, Latinos. Know your place. You may want to be at the table, but really you’re on the menu.”

Yet, as often happens with right-wing ideologues, Pearce and his giddy band of Tea Party Republicans, with little resistance from the corporate GOP establishment, overreached. 

SB1070, as it turns out, would be a bridge too far – and Latinos got pissed.

Here’s where the “thanks” are due. 

Thanks to Pearce, Brewer and their de facto enforcers at the time – people like Sheriff-and-now-convicted-criminal Joe Arpaio and now-disbarred former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas – the passage of SB1070 and the swift, thumping backlash against it marked a watershed in Arizona politics. 

In much the same way that California Gov. Pete Wilson’s similarly racist support of Proposition 187 in 1994 helped convert that state to near absolute Democratic control, Arizona’s SB1070 laid the ground for the rise in the past 10 to 15 years of a powerful, grassroots-led political movement that has now positioned the state to play a key role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 elections.

The passage of SB1070 in 2010 sparked not only a punishing national economic boycott against Arizona, right as the Great Recession was waning, but it also catalyzed the rise of the influential grassroots coalition One Arizona and other progressive groups, as well as the engagement of a number of long-time civil rights activists. The global reaction to the bill’s passage helped convince establishment Republicans realize they could no longer ignore the crazies in their party as long as they kept electing governors and other politicians who were willing to keep shoveling out unlimited corporate tax cuts. They’re still soliciting corporate tax cuts, but they keep a close eye now on the crazies.

That said, most leading Republicans in Arizona still think they can have their cake and eat it too. 

Take Gov. Doug Ducey, who touted the endorsements of Brewer and Arpaio during his first gubernatorial run and has since endorsed President Donald Trump – the single most racist American president since Andrew Jackson. Ducey is Arizona’s political equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One day, Gov. Jekyll is defying Trump’s exhortations to reject the resettlement of refugees in Arizona, and the next Gov. Hyde is defending a proposal to alter the state’s constitution to outlaw so-called sanctuary cities that prohibit local police from cooperating with federal immigration agents. 

Ducey’s eventual decision to pull his support for a constitutionally mandated sanctuary city ban earlier this year speaks to the still unfolding but very real power shift occurring in Arizona. In response to the proposal, One Arizona activated its sprawling grassroots network and joined forces with moderate business leaders and progressive and centrist elected officials to let Ducey and his right-wing allies in the Legislature know how much the constitutional amendment reminded them of SB1070 – which reminded a lot of people, including a lot business leaders, of the national economic boycott

Business types hate economic boycotts. Ducey backed off.

In the years leading up to SB1070, it was big business and the two political parties that functioned as the state’s biggest power brokers. But that power balance has been disrupted by the rise beginning in the mid-2000s, and especially since 2010, of an increasingly sophisticated, often Latino-led progressive grassroots organizations that have played a decisive role in some of the state’s key political milestones, including:

Arizona, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Trump’s unlikely rise to power and the political, socioeconomic carnage he’s wreaked in the past three years sparked an explosion of progressive and centrist-Democrat activism that pummeled the Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. (I give him little credit for the economic boom he inherited from Barack Obama, and I directly blame him for greatly worsening the economic crash linked to the pandemic.) 

Expect that blue wave to push straight through to November with the election of Mark Kelly as U.S. Senator, the takeover of the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives, and a decisive defeat of Trump in the Grand Canyon State. 

The president may not lose his race by a big margin in Arizona, but he will lose here and be defeated nationally in a landslide, I believe, thanks in great part to his stupendously incompetent and mean-spirited management of the federal response to the global pandemic. More than 62,000 people have been killed by COVID-19 in the past three months,  but Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have touted the federal response to the pandemic as “a success.”

I think there’s a direct line that leads from the passage of SB1070 in 2010 to Arizona’s steady but historic political shift to the left in the past 10 years. While I believe this political revolution would have happened without Trump’s rise to power, it’s fair to say that the chaos and endemic corruption  of this presidential administration has accelerated the process.

Ultimately, I believe SB1070 will be remembered in two ways. First, as a cruel, ham-handed attempt by Republican extremists to carry out a kind of low-intensity ethnic cleansing aimed at keeping the state as white as possible. But I also believe Arizona will one day be lauded for the firm, clear-sighted reaction by a diverse majority of its people who pushed back tirelessly and successfully against one of the greatest wrongs in one of darkest times in the state’s history.