Arizona Republicans distanced themselves Monday from an influential East Valley lawmaker as fallout continued to grow from his call to revive a massive 1950s deportation program.
Rep. Russell Pearce, RMesa, ignited controversy last week, saying on local radio that he supports bringing back a federal program to deport illegal Mexican immigrants called “Operation Wetback.”
Hispanic leaders were furious over the use of the term “wetback” and criticized the lawmaker for using a racial slur on-air. But the criticism and anger expanded beyond Hispanic neighborhoods as voters on the street, as well as members of his own party, called the plan unworkable and unrealistic.
Some Republicans flatly rejected Pearce’s call for a large-scale deportation plan, while others defended Pearce’s intentions and criticized his tact.
Lawmakers from both parties said the state should instead focus on securing Arizona’s 370-mile border with Mexico.
“I don’t believe this is the type of immigration plan Republicans are looking for,” said Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson, R-Chandler. “We need to focus on securing our borders before we do anything else.”
Other GOP lawmakers were doubtful an illegal immigrant roundup would work.
Rep. Michele Reagan, RScottsdale, said there’s no way such a policy would solve the problem.
“I don’t know, at this point how we could round up everybody and deport them. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to me,” she said.
Democrats seized on the issue by renewing calls for tougher penalties for business that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
They also accused Republicans of selling out to the the business lobby because the party has largely opposed employer sanctions.
Democrats also demanded that GOP party leaders renounce Pearce’s statements. Matt Salmon, chairman of the Arizona Republican, refused to comment. But officials with GOP gubernatorial candidate Len Munsil’s campaign characterized a mass deportation policy as “not practical.”
Munsil officials also scolded Pearce for using a derogatory term. “It is not a word Len Munsil uses or would ever use,” said Vernon Parker, a Munsil spokesman.
Pearce did not return phone calls Monday. He defended his words last week, saying his reference to “Operation Wetback” was used in a historical context. “This was a successful program and I’m quoting a successful program for those who continue to tell you it’s impossible to deport (illegal immigrants) in this country,” Pearce said at the time.
But the results of the program, which formed under the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, were mixed at best.
Brian Gratton, a history professor at Arizona State University, said the program was originally hailed a success because it deported thousands. But the program, which started in mid-1954, was halted after a few months because the business community pressured the administration.
“It appeared to be successful but it didn’t resolve the problem in any effective way,” Gratton said.
He said the effectiveness of the program is hard to judge. As many as 2 million illegal immigrants were deported, according to some estimates.
But Gratton said federal officials exaggerated those numbers, so an accurate number is nearly impossible to get.
Latino, faith-based and community groups responded to Pearce’s statements by calling a meeting to develop an opposition strategy.
More than a dozen groups, including Somos America, ACORN and Latino Community Services, came together several months ago to form the Mesa/East Valley Alliance for Civic Engagement.
“There’s a point where you can be offensive and really offensive, and he’d crossed the line to be really offensive,” said Pat Esparza, one of the founding members of the activist group.
Magdalena Schwartz, a minister and head of Latino Community Services in Mesa, called Pearce’s comments “racist and hateful.”
On the street, the opinions were much the same.
Dan Cole, who recently moved from Mesa to Tempe, said he had never heard of Pearce, but now he’s glad he moved out of Pearce’s district.
“From a global viewpoint, it’s purely coincidental that I happened to be born a few 100 miles north of the border instead of a few 100 miles south of the border,” he said.
“That’s crazy. . . . This is not the Eisenhower days.”
Yet some East Valley lawmakers defended Pearce as being a passionate advocate for immigration reform who sometime makes controversial statements.
“I think he needs to take a lesson in political correctness,” said Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler. “That might help him with his message.”