The massive and unified display of pro-immigration marchers that descended on the state Capitol on Monday grabbed national headlines and commanded the attention of nearly every politician in Arizona.
But one day later, it remained unclear whether the rally, which drew more than 100,000 protesters to downtown Phoenix, would have the impact Hispanic activists hoped for. It coincided with about 100 marches across the country intended to raise pressure on Congress to change U.S. immigration laws.
Policy experts said the event could signal the beginning of a push for political power by Arizona’s large and growing Hispanic community. Yet it could also galvanize opposition and slow immigration reform, they said.
Bruce Merrill, a political pollster and professor at Arizona State University, said the demonstrations could energize conservative voters.
Those voters have taken a hard line against illegal immigration, calling for a closed border with Mexico and opposing guest worker programs that would offer illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
If the conservative base does turn out, Merrill said, it would be a huge lift for candidates in statewide races, such as Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., running against former state Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson.
Kyl has said he would support a guest worker program that would require all illegal immigrants to return to their native countries before coming back, something Monday’s march organizers oppose.
Merrill compared the immigration issue to samesex marriage initiatives on ballots in 11 states during the 2004 election cycle. That issue drove conservatives to the polls, giving Republicans in those states a huge advantage.
But he warned the political gains might not last if Hispanic leaders are able to build on their current momentum.
“This movement does have the potential to do what the civil rights movement accomplished in the ’60s and ’70s,” Merrill said.
Likewise, Stan Barns, a former state legislator and current political consultant, said Hispanics could soon become a major force in the state.
“Anyone that can put together over 100,000 people all dressed in white is a political force to be reckoned with long term,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before they are a significant force in all state elections.”
But he doubted whether it would further solidify conservative Republicans. “They’re always galvanized,’’ he said.
While observers stayed busy assessing the impact of Monday’s marches, elected officials dealt with its effects.
The marchers clearly amplified their desire for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Kyl said. However, the rally also prompted those opposed to that idea to call his office by the thousands, he added.
“People want enforcement at the border,” he said. “They want to enforce the law.”
Since Congress is on its two-week Easter recess, it’s too early to tell what effect the marches had with lawmakers, he said.
Pederson said he doesn’t expect immigration reform this year.
“I’m pessimistic that anything will come out of Congress,” he said. “You don’t have people back there (that) are pragmatic, that take a common-sense view of the world. It’s total politics.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsored a bill that would have increased border enforcement while allowing illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship without first returning to their native countries. But that bill also stalled.
McCain said Tuesday he will continue to push for passage of his bill requiring illegal immigrants to pay a fine, back taxes and to learn English before becoming citizens.