Arizona political and business leaders are gathering in Prescott to think out loud about the future as a border state and Arizona’s role in shaping national immigration reform.
But critics say this 86th Arizona Town Hall will lack the credibility or influence of past assemblies because organizers have excluded prominent opponents of immigration, including advocates for Proposition 200 and other proposals designed to discourage illegal immigration.
The Arizona Town Hall was established 33 years ago as a forum for discussing complex state issues, with an intent to develop consensus proposals to guide elected officials and other policymakers. Twice a year, invitations are sent to government experts, business executives, community activists and college students to join the debate on a specific topic.
This Town Hall, which kicked off Sunday, will focus on competing in a global economy with a special emphasis on the state’s relationship with Mexico. Organizers said any meaningful discussion must include questions about border security and immigration reform. But they don’t want those concerns to monopolize the entire forum and its final recommendations.
"There are advantages and disadvantages to being a border state," said Jack Sellers of Chandler, one of the discussion leaders. "It would be very easy to spend our entire Town Hall time talking about one of the very emotional issues the state is dealing with, instead of how do we capitalize on the advantages and how do we minimize the disadvantages."
Expected to be among the Town Hall’s 150 participants are Carlos Flores-Vizcarra, Mexico’s consulate general in Phoenix, and five prominent members of Gov. Janet Napolitano’s administration. Betsey Bayless, director of the state Department of Administration, was scheduled to be another discussion leader.
Salvador Reza of Phoenix, an immigrant-rights advocate trying to organize an economic boycott of Arizona to protest voter approval of Proposition 200, also was expected to attend.
But none of the participants represent groups that actively worked to pass Proposition 200, an initiative that requires photo identification to vote and limits access to some welfare programs for illegal immigrants.
Town Hall president Shirley Agnos said invitations were based on recommendations from the Town Hall’s 61 board members, and no one suggested a Proposition 200 advocate.
Kathy McKee, chairwoman of Protect Arizona Now, said that’s because Arizona’s political and business elite continue to ignore where the general public stands on immigration problems.
"We’re pretty used to them wanting to sing to the choir, which is why, of course, nothing ever gets accomplished," McKee said.
"When you’ve got 60 (percent) to 70 percent of the people firmly supporting us, and we’re never heard or given any kind of credibility, we’re not going to listen to them or give them any credibility either," she said.
Still, sharp clashes of ideology likely will occur over the next three days. Illegal immigration has dominated state political discourse over the past year.
Several participants said they expect heated debate, but hope it will focus on practical solutions with an eye toward Arizona’s image in other parts of the world.
"We really need to get out of this rut of looking at demographic changes as a negative," said Alberto Olivas, director of voter outreach programs at Mesa Community College. "That needs to be dealt with, but that is only part of the picture."