January 21, 2013
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most ardent hard-liners on illegal immigration, is noticeably softening her tone on the issue.
While she remained consistent in her message -- secure the border, then reform the nation’s broken immigration system -- last week’s State of the State address contained no hint of the angry, finger-wagging Jan Brewer scolding the federal government.
As a governor at ground zero in the national debate over illegal immigration, Brewer’s pronouncements on the issue carry significant weight, particularly with the GOP’s rank and file. Her change in tone comes as many Republicans -- in the wake of their defeats and dismal showing among Latinos in the November election -- are lining up behind immigration reforms that include a way for millions of illegal immigrants to legalize their status and eventually become U.S. citizens.
A shift by Brewer could influence the immigration debate and bode well for reform, said one expert, particularly because Arizona in recent years has set the tone nationally on the issue. Its illegal-immigration hard-liners, from Brewer to Sheriffs Joe Arpaio and Paul Babeu and former Senate President Russell Pearce, have been sought-after speakers on news shows and in conservative circles. Some states have mimicked or tried to adopt some of Arizona’s strident laws aimed at driving illegal immigrants out, including 2010’s controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070.
“Arizona is in an important position to shape the national immigration debate -- it’s a border state, it’s a destination of both immigrants and unauthorized immigrants and it’s just naturally positioned … particularly with Sen. (John) McCain’s history in the field,” said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California-Irvine.
The impact, DeSipio said, “will only have an effect to the degree that others follow her.”
When Brewer brought up immigration late in her State of the State address on Monday, her tone was measured, not heated. And she did not use the speech to ridicule the president as she has in the past, but offered him an olive branch of sorts -- imploring him to secure the border and promising to come to the table on reform once that is done.
She also has been hosting meetings with members of the state’s congressional delegation to discuss, among other issues, comprehensive immigration reform. President Barack Obama has called the issue one of his top agenda items and said he wants Congress to tackle it this spring.
Those close to Brewer told The Arizona Republic that her new approach is by design and that it reflects her goal: to focus the last two years of her term on resolving key issues rather than continuing to battle over them. Her advisers characterize her as a “pragmatic politician” who understands political realities.
The topics of immigration and border security came up only at the very end of Brewer’s 37-minute State of the State speech.
She didn’t mention SB 1070, which she signed into law -- a move that rocketed her to international prominence and helped ensure her election. She also did not mention her recent executive order to deny driver’s licenses to young undocumented immigrants who receive federal work permits through Obama’s deferred-action program. And there was no mention of beheadings in the desert, a theme that played prominently or garnered headlines in past public remarks.
Instead, the one-page passage called for “human compassion” -- language gentler than previous public remarks.
“I’ve heard the earnest calls for immigration reform,” Brewer said from the state House of Representatives’ rostrum. “I agree our nation’s system is broken and has been for decades. Once our border is secure, I pledge to work with all fair-minded people to reform our nation’s immigration system. It must once again combine the rule of law and human compassion, providing safety for our citizens and facilitating our economic relationship with Mexico -- Arizona’s largest trade partner.”
That echoes what many in the national Republican Party began saying just days after Obama defeated Mitt Romney, largely by carrying more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.
If Brewer is going to help lead the discussion, she will have to overcome her -- and the state’s -- reputation on immigration.
For the past decade, Republican state lawmakers have pushed enforcement-only legislation as a way to solve some of the state’s illegal-immigration and border-security problems, with measures such as the 2007 employer-sanctions law, which requires the use of a federal database to screen all new hires to see if they are eligible to work in the U.S.
Some states tried to copy portions of that measure, and anti-illegal-immigration activists pushed for a national version of the law, but Arizona’s position as a leader on such issues was solidified in 2010.
Former Sen. Pearce had introduced an SB 1070-like bill in 2006 that would have let authorities question an individual’s immigration status. Janet Napolitano, then the state’s Democratic governor, vetoed it. Pearce introduced SB 1070 in January 2010. Brewer signed it into law three months later, making the state the target of boycotts and a lawsuit by the Obama administration.
Until now, Brewer’s tone on the issue has been consistently harsh toward the federal government.
When she signed the bill, for example, the governor in part said the law represents another tool for the state to “work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”
‘Fulfill your promise’
In a Jan. 10 one-on-one interview with The Republic, Brewer was again amiable. She stressed that she has been calling for immigration reform since she was secretary of state, and she focused her comments on residents affected by a porous border.
“Although the ‘illegal immigration’ â€1/8 has been reduced, we know that the drug cartel has grown larger,” she said. “Arizona and our government and our good citizens are subjected to the cartels, the drug trafficking, the human trafficking, the extortion, the drop houses, the prostitution -- and it’s because our borders are open. These people are bad people, they’re dangerous people, and there’s no reason why the people of Arizona have to be put in that position.”
She continued with that theme in her State of the State address, with a comment directed to the president: “Fulfill your promise to the American people, and I’ll make good on mine,” she said.
Some still skeptical
Brewer’s softer tone is already being met with skepticism.
Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, has closely watched Brewer’s statements and actions on immigration over the years. Asked if her new tone may reflect progress, he said, “I do.” He said it appears “the governor is recognizing there are economic and political realities that you simply can’t ignore anymore.”
But, he said, she was elected because of her support of SB 1070.
The “softer” Brewer stunned Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., who said she was reflecting the new realities facing the GOP.
“Look, at least rhetorically, this is different than what we’ve heard,” Sharry said. But she’s still the person that won’t give driver’s licenses to ‘dreamers.’ At least rhetorically, she’s gone from wagging her finger at the president’s face, to kind of extending an olive branch.”