WASHINGTON – When Gov. Jan Brewer asked private donors last year to help pay legal fees to defend the state and its controversial SB 1070 immigration law against lawsuits, thousands of Arizonans responded.
And so did thousands of people from other states. And other territories and other countries.
Donations to the fund, which totaled $3.8 million as of Sept. 1, have come from all 50 states in the nation, several territories, the District of Columbia and countries as far-flung as Canada, Costa Rica and Micronesia.
Those donations have swamped the contributions from Arizonans, who make up about 15 percent of the 45,402 donors and about 10 percent of the total donations.
Supporters of the law say the broad reach of the donations is proof of the popularity of SB 1070.
“The geographic diversity of donors to the (fund) is a point of pride for the governor,” said Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer, in an email. “People from all over the country have not only sided with Arizona on SB 1070, they’ve put their money with their mouth is.”
But critics said the “geographic diversity” of donors just shows that the law is not supported back home in Arizona.
“I’ve always believed that outside sources were going to fuel these anti-immigrant laws,” said Dee Dee Garcia Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, an Arizona-based conservative Hispanic organization.
“It’s outside influences that are controlling these laws,” said Blase. She pointed to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who wrote both Arizona’s and Alabama’s immigration law, as an outsider promoting anti-immigrant sentiment in the state.
Among other controversial measures in SB 1070, which passed last year, the law originally let police officers ask suspects for their immigration status if there was reason to believe they were in the country illegally. Opponents said this would have let law enforcement engage in racial profiling.
Brewer opened the legal fund last year in a dispute with then-Attorney General Terry Goddard over who should defend the state against court challenges to the law. Brewer decided to hire private lawyers to handle the case and sought the public’s help in paying them.
Pro-immigrant organizations had already filed suit and the U.S. Department of Justice subsequently sued, claiming that the state law trespassed on federal responsibilities.
A federal judge blocked parts of the law last summer, and that decision was upheld in April by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Brewer has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court has not yet said whether it will hear the case or not.
In the meantime, contributions have continued to come in to the legal defense fund. Of the $3.8 million raised as of Sept. 1, Benson said about $2.06 million had been spent in legal fees.
Benson said the governor’s office has a Web site for the fund, but has not otherwise advertised it. But the money has rolled in.
The largest donations came last year, and most of those came from outside Arizona. Wyoming resident Timothy Mellon, who owns a railroad and other business interests, wired more than $1.5 million to the fund in 2010, the largest single donation.
There was also Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks, a Philadelphia restaurant, who donated nearly $67,000. Vento, who died in August, was known as an English-only advocate after posting signs in his business asking customers to “please order in English.” Vento was sued over the signs, but won.
The largest single in-state contribution came from a Joseph Van de Loo, who was listed as giving $10,000. The fund information provided by Brewer’s office and gave no other information than the donor’s name, home state, donation amount and date.
Mellon did not return a phone call and Vento’s family declined to comment. Cronkite News Service could not locate Van de Loo.
“The state’s vigorous defense of SB 1070 has, in part, been made possible by these generous donations,” Benson said. He said there is no expiration date for the fund so supporters of the law can still donate.
Donations ranged from Mellon’s all the way down to 25 cents, with the average donation nationwide at $84. But that number was skewed by Mellon’s contribution: With his donation taken out, the national average contribution was $49.84.
The average donation from Arizona was $55.
State Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said since Arizona has only donated 10 percent into the fund, it proves that SB 1070 is not as popular as many think.
“People have turned to Arizona and see it as a place where crazy ideas can become reality,” Gallardo said.
Dave Wells, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said it is only natural for the country to weigh in on Arizona’s immigration law since immigration has become a national issue.
“SB 1070 touches on an issue that other states have an interest in,” Wells said. “So, it’s really no surprise why people around the U.S. have an interest in it.”
Uriel J. Garcia is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.