The next mayor of Mesa will face some tough issues, including a massive turnover on the City Council, million-dollar development projects and deep budget cuts. But nothing generates more emotion and attention than the debate over illegal immigration in Mesa, where the booming Hispanic population has quadrupled since 1990.
Immigration experts say local officials should expect to find themselves at the center of an increasingly sticky public policy debate.
Arizona State University professor Jamie Aguila, who specializes in immigration issues, says what has historically been a matter of federal regulation already is being addressed at the state level and predicts it will soon trickle down to the local level.
"It wouldn't surprise me next year if you see city governments begin to enact city ordinances aimed at the regulation of undocumented immigrants," Aguila said. "You'll see city governments become more aggressive in passing immigration regulation laws, though those will get shot down at some level."
Mesa mayoral candidates Claudia Walters, Rex Griswold and Scott Smith all have said they are against illegal immigration, but differ on the role a mayor should play in the debate, how to deal with day laborers, the definition of a "sanctuary city" and how to reach out to legal Hispanic residents.
The mayor is most effective as the spokesman for the city, Griswold said.
"They are the face of the city and people look to them for leadership and look for someone to associate with," he said. "You have to deal with the local issues and the effects of it. You can't say, 'It's a federal problem, we can't solve it.' There are some things you can do to make the problem less of a problem."
Griswold pointed to empowering Mesa police officers with more immigration-related training and showing public support for state laws to create guest worker programs.
Walters said she believes the role of the mayor is to set priorities for the police department. She touts the improved relationship between Mesa and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and says she supports cross-training for city police.
"The first place it makes sense is in the jails, because people are being arrested there," she said.
Walters supports city participation in the ICE cross-training program, known as 287g, allowing local law enforcement officials to further question suspects about their immigration status.
At a December City Council meeting, Walters voted to send a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff requesting information about the training.
ICE is in the process of responding to the questions, spokesman Vincent Picard said. Meanwhile, other cities have signed deals with ICE to do the training and will be going through the program soon, he said.
Smith has put a finer point on his views of illegal immigration, posting a special video on his campaign Web site and announcing he had gained the endorsement of Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, an extremely vocal opponent to illegal immigration.
Pearce said he believes Smith would face illegal immigration "head-on."
"He would take the handcuffs off of law enforcement and allow them to enforce all immigration laws," Pearce said.
Smith has not outlined any specific directives with regard to law enforcement or community solutions.
He said he would be active in putting pressure on the federal government and plans to convene a group of local leaders to come up with real steps to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in Mesa.
DAY LABOR DISPUTE
Smith said he does have a plan to deal with the closely related issue of day laborers.
He has been vocal about working with private groups to establish a legal day labor center and "create a situation where it's orderly and there are no incentives to keep hanging around."
"It's something where a mayor goes to the head of a social agency and says, 'We've got a problem,'" Smith said. "I'm asking. I'm telling. We need to get a solution."
Both Griswold and Walters supported a council measure last summer to impose parking restrictions in an area known to attract day laborers.
Walters said she and the council have worked with business owners and residents in areas such as Mesa Drive between Broadway Road and First Avenue, where day laborers frequently congregate, to come up with solutions such as citing people for trespassing.
Griswold called the day labor issue the "poster child" for illegal immigration.
"It looks scary and it reminds people of the Depression," he said. "It's disconcerting and intimidating to the residents."
Although he admitted it would be difficult, Griswold suggested churches should get involved to minister to laborers and give them a safe place to assemble.
Under that scenario, the city could work to get people off the street but also give them a place to go.
Griswold said the presence of day laborers in public has given some residents the impression that Mesa is a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.
That includes the city's current mayor, Keno Hawker.
Hawker said that despite his own attempts to deal with the issue, Mesa has become a sanctuary for illegal immigrants.
"I think we've been way too lax," he said. "We've even had a policy that was not approved by the council to not ask any immigration-related questions of suspects, just take a thumbprint and release."
In his 2008 State of the City address, Hawker said his past efforts to curtail illegal immigration - such as citing employers hiring illegal immigrants and participating in ICE training - were consistently shot down by other city leaders.
"The mood has changed a little bit," he said.
Hawker predicted the new mayor would continue to have challenges with the local effects of illegal immigration - including the costs of code compliance, increased need for jails and uninsured drivers on the road.
The Mesa Police Department's policy is that community members should not hesitate to call about suspected crimes, regardless of their immigration status. Police do not arrest or detain anyone whose only violation is the federal immigration law. Officers are directed not to notify ICE if the person is cited and then released.
Smith said Mesa is not a sanctuary city by design, but that police feel caught, "like there's a lack of resources and clear direction" on how they are supposed to enforce the law.
Smith said he was concerned that Mesa police Chief George Gascón and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio appear to be battling over the issue. The policies then are not well understood by everyone.
"As a citizen I would prefer that law enforcement officers are on the same page," Smith said.
Griswold said Mesa is not a sanctuary city but has earned the reputation because it does not question witnesses or victims of crimes about immigration status.
He said the answer to that would be to create a guest worker program or some other legal residency program.
"If we get people some kind of legal status, they could operate within the law," he said. "This gray area, where everybody operates in a shadow community, is hurting the city, and hurting the country."
Walters said she has been to cities that actually publicize themselves as sanctuaries to illegal immigrants.
"No, we are not a sanctuary city because we go after people," she said. "After we arrest people, we determine their legal status and contact ICE."
All three candidates condemned the practice of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, but as far as outreach to Hispanic residents goes, none has made it a priority.
In general, Mesa has devoted far less money to diversity training and personnel than its neighboring municipalities.
Mesa's diversity office - in charge of hiring Spanish-speaking employees, planning cultural events and working with the Human Relations board - employs one person and has a budget of less than $150,000.
The office's counterpart in Scottsdale employs four people and has a budget of more than $350,000, and Tempe's diversity office budget is nearly $750,000.
Walters and Smith both balk at even using the term "diversity."
"When you say 'diversity,' people automatically turn off," Smith said. "Sometimes, when we focus only on the problems of a subgroup, we don't solve the problem. We make it worse for them. Eighty percent of our problems are universal."
Walters said it's a false notion that diversity only has to do with the diversity office.
"What does 'diversity' mean?" she said. "Call me Pollyanna, call me old-fashioned, but I think we talk about things we have in common."
Griswold said the city partners with groups such as the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens and Mesa Community College to address diversity, rather than taking a bureaucratic approach.
"One of the things we are trying to do is have a work force in the city that somewhat reflects the residents of the city," he said.
Immigration expert Aguila said cities would benefit from helping those in the shadows find services and come out in the open, especially when dealing with the police.
"There are plenty of nongovernment agencies that can help them that won't necessarily cost taxpayer money," he said. "Preventive medicine and education costs a lot less than prisons and emergency health care."
The most effective role a local mayor could take would be to encourage constructive discussion, Aguila said.
"It's really more effective if the extremists aren't the only ones who are speaking the loudest," he said.