SANTA FE, N.M. - With just three words — ‘‘state of emergency’’ — border state Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona injected a sense of urgency into a long-simmering national debate over illegal immigration.
First Richardson, then Napolitano, declared a state of emergency this month in portions of their states along the border with Mexico. In doing so, they freed state money for local governments and law enforcement to cope with what they describe as increasing border crime and problems related to illegal immigration.
Politically and symbolically, the Democratic governors may have achieved much more.
‘‘The fact that two governors out of the four on the border have issued emergency declarations should be a wakeup call for the Congress to pursue serious immigration reform,’’ said Richardson, who is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, sees immigration as an emerging issue in the 2006 congressional elections and in the 2008 presidential race. It’s not just a concern in border states, he stresses.
‘‘Immigration is becoming a hot-button social issue that is going to rival abortion, gay rights, guns and the death penalty,’’ said Sabato.
With Richardson and Napolitano running for reelection in 2006, their emergency declarations may help inoculate them from potential campaign attacks for their handling of immigration measures.
Napolitano downplays the political impact, saying the issue isn’t partisan, or at least that it shouldn’t be. ‘‘It’s a border state issue for Arizona,’’ she said.
But Napolitano has angered Republicans by vetoing antiimmigration legislation, including a proposal that would have allowed state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws.
‘‘She’s the illegal-alien governor,’’ said Arizona Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
In New Mexico — the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country — immigration hasn’t reached the same political boiling point as in neighboring Arizona, where voters approved a measure last year to deny some government benefits to illegal immigrants.
There are hints, however, that immigration could surface as a divisive issue in New Mexico. Several hundred people rallied in July against a plan by civilian volunteers to start border patrols this fall in New Mexico. Similar Minutemen patrols have occurred in Arizona.
Republicans suggest that politics motivated Richardson’s emergency declaration.
Since becoming governor, Richardson has signed legislation into law to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s license in New Mexico and for children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition.
‘‘How can he speak out against illegal immigration, yet give illegal immigrants incentives to come to New Mexico?’’ asked Roxanne Rivera, a spokeswoman for the state GOP.
‘‘Illegal immigrants are just that, illegal. Gov. Richardson is rewarding illegal behavior with incentives. He is absolutely disingenuous in his attempt to win votes,’’ said Rivera.
Richardson said last week that his emergency order wasn’t a calculated political decision. He also defended the new laws, saying they will help reduce the number of uninsured immigrant drivers and expand educational opportunities for children already living in New Mexico.
‘‘New Mexico should be considered the most immigrant friendly state. I have led the way on dealing with immigrants in New Mexico in a realistic way,’’ said Richardson.
He issued the emergency order after touring the border region by helicopter and hearing from area residents.
Initially, Richardson said, he hadn’t intended to make the emergency declaration during the trip. It was an option that had been suggested by a top aide and the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association. He decided to go ahead during a town meeting in Deming. Ranchers told the governor about immigrants and drug smugglers crossing their property — causing fence damage, break-ins and cattle deaths.
‘‘It was spontaneous based on what I saw at the time — a very violent criminal situation at my border affecting the lives of my constituents,’’ Richardson said of his emergency declaration.
There’s been a 15 percent increase in the illegal immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol so far this year in the El Paso sector, which covers the border area in New Mexico and two western Texas counties. More than 106,000 had been caught by mid-August. There have been 25 deaths, up from 18 last year, according to the Border Patrol.
Sabato calls Richardson’s emergency declaration ‘‘very clever.’’
‘‘At home it’s not going to hurt him and nationally it’s going to help him. And the side benefit is he helped a good friend (Napolitano) in a neighboring state,’’ said Sabato.
But Richardson — because he is Hispanic — has an advantage in the political debate over immigration, according to Sabato.
‘‘This is what has caused Bush and many other politicians to shy away from any tough action on immigration. They fear the ‘r’ label — the racist label. Almost by definition, it’s tough to accuse Richardson of that. So that’s why . . . he’s got an invulnerability shield that the other politicians would die for,’’ Sabato said.