Mesa lawmaker Russell Pearce’s crusade to fix Arizona’s immigration problems this year came to a slow and bitter end late Wednesday.
In the middle of the night, as lawmakers worked to end the session — which wrapped up early Thursday — it became clear that two of his immigration bills were going nowhere.
It was the end of a long road for Pearce, who made it a priority to cut off the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. But it was also representative of the GOP-led Legislature’s failed efforts to deliver on what was one of their most ambitious issues of the session.
The Legislature did approve measures allowing voters to decide on a number of immigration issues, but it failed to pass an immigration reform package that addressed several issues.
Most Republican lawmakers said that was one of the biggest disappointments of the session. Pearce, who has worked for years on the issue, said he felt betrayed by his own party.
“It’s a shame, but illegal aliens have found a friend in the Arizona Senate,” Pearce said Thursday afternoon.
The Mesa lawmaker was behind an 11th-hour push to approve measures that penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants. He also was working on a bill defining the role of local authorities in enforcing federal immigration law.
He said he was assured by Senate leaders that the bills would pass. But they never got to the floor.
Senate President Ken Bennett, RPrescott, said there just wasn’t enough support for the bills.
The Legislature did adopt two ballot measures giving voters the chance to decide whether to deny benefits to illegal immigrants and to make English the state’s official language. GOP lawmakers were forced to take the issues to the ballot after Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed the comprehensive immigration bill two weeks ago.
Republicans are calling the ballot measures a small consolation prize.
“I’d say it’s one of the few wins for us this year,” Pearce said Thursday about the English language ballot measure.
If passed, all government operations would have to be conducted in English. But that has some people outside the Legislature worried that it’s an attack on all immigrants, legal or not.
“This is absolutely 100 percent an attack on us. A democracy is a democracy, what does it matter what language we speak,” said Santos Ortiz, president of the Mesa Chapter of Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, an immigration reform group. The other bill would ban the state from providing illegal migrants with help for child care and in-state tuition for community colleges or universities.
Stacey O’Connell, director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps., said he’s frustrated by the lack of action by the Legislature. Instead of ballot measures, he said it would have been better if the state lawmakers had adopted measures putting troops on the border.
Bennett, who has reached his term limit and will not be returning to the Legislature next year, acknowledged mistakes were made during this session. “I think we could have had more direct talks between myself the governor and the speaker,” he said, adding that such talks could have led to a deal.
Pearce pledged to be back next year. “This fight is not over,” he said.