The Protect Arizona Now initiative has become a national lightning rod for the issue of illegal immigration as backers work toward a nationwide movement to stop the flow of undocumented workers and opponents try to stem a political tide building against them.
For months, national groups promoting stricter immigration controls have been funneling money to initiative supporters to get it on the Nov. 2 general election. The group has created a national advisory board of experts to fashion a message that will appeal nationwide. Now, a major Washington, D.C.-based union associated with the AFL-CIO will go to court today to block a public vote on the Arizona initiative, which would appear on the ballot as Proposition 200.
If the initiative survives the legal challenge, national interest is expected to keep growing in coming months. Proponents and opponents believe passage of Prop. 200 would trigger similar efforts in other states.
"They intend to use Arizona as a relatively inexpensive guinea pig . . . to make their national proposals that they can't pass in Congress," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a leading Prop. 200 opponent.
Prop. 200 would require people to prove their citizenship any time they register to vote and when they cast a ballot. The initiative also would require local and state governments to verify legal residency before extending "public benefits" not mandated by federal law, from state welfare programs to library cards, depending on how the law is interpreted. Government employees who suspect an illegal immigrant of applying for benefits would have to file a written report to federal authorities, or face misdemeanor charges.
The proposal is intended as an extension of a proposition that passed in California a decade ago. That law banned access for illegal immigrants to nearly all government services but was rendered largely ineffective by court rulings and California officials who chose not to push its most far-reaching provisions.
Since the California initiative, illegal immigration has become a more widespread problem and communities throughout the country are struggling to cope with large numbers of new immigrants. Proposals nearly identical to the Arizona initiative were pursued in Colorado and California but failed to qualify for statewide elections this year.
The state organization appeared headed for the same fate, until initiative leaders recruited the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform to fund a paid petition-gathering campaign. That organization and several affiliated groups pumped in more than $400,000. The strategy worked.
Secretary of State Jan Brewer officially certified the initiative Monday with an estimate of 152,177 valid signatures based on a random check of petitions.
A recent statewide poll showed three of every four potential voters intended to support the initiative.
Meanwhile, several local Democratic politicians and political groups created the Statue of Liberty Coalition to oppose the measure. But that effort raised little money and remained largely unorganized as the initiative backers, with their influx of national money, surged ahead. That threat has prompted the Statue of Liberty Coalition to reorganize and on Monday members said they are reforming under a new opposition banner — one with substantially deeper pockets. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which supports a guest-worker program, will be a major participant.
The Washington-based Service International Employees Union is financing the court challenge of Prop. 200, alleging the initiative petition didn't accurately explain the proposal and that too many signatures were collected by ineligible circulators. In a related but separate lawsuit, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday it won't consider the union's challenge to the ballot language for Prop. 200 adopted by lawmakers in July.
"We believe criminal provisions against public employees for not turning in people suspected of undocumented is just very bad public policy," said Scott Washburn, the union's state director. "We don't want it to happen here in Arizona. We don't want it to start growing in other states."
The union insists its opposition is locally based. But it has no local chapter in Arizona, with about 500 state members out of 1.6 million nationally, Washburn said. The plaintiffs are Pam and Lloyd Singer of Glendale, who Washburn didn't know but are described by their San Francisco lawyer, Jonathan Weissglass, as "citizens concerned about Prop. 200."
Kathy McKee, chairwoman of the initiative committee, said she expected national Hispanic groups to actively campaign against the proposal. But McKee said she has been caught off-guard by intense interest from other groups and national media.
McKee said that's why the group created a national advisory board. The Tribune reported Monday that the board is headed by a Vanderbilt University law professor known for her belief in the separation of races.
Still, McKee says Arizona voters should be outraged by the union's effort to block their ability to vote on the proposal.
"Tying up our legal system, and the taxpayers of this state having to pay for these outside troublemakers to come in and try to stymie our democracy, just makes me furious," McKee said.