Illegal immigration has long been a broiling topic in all the states along the Mexican border, with opponents insisting that more undocumented aliens mean more crime, depleted state budgets and strained public health and education systems. This year, however, Arizona has become the primary battleground. And that is due in large part to the efforts of state Representative Russell Pearce.
A 58-year-old Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, Pearce has represented the Mesa area in the legislature since 2001. But he has been fighting illegal immigration one way or another for decades, as a deputy sheriff for 23 years, as a justice of the peace and small-claims judge, and as state motor vehicle director. Everywhere he has been, Pearce has sought to use public authority to keep undocumented immigrants from entering and staying in Arizona. "Russell saw this beginning way back in his days with the sheriff's office," says Karen Johnson, a Senate colleague who represents a neighboring district in Mesa. "He was trying to say things then, but nobody was listening."
That began to change last year, with the statewide vote on Proposition 200, a controversial ballot initiative that prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving state services. Pearce was a chief advocate for the measure, and after it passed overwhelmingly, he called it a mandate to address an "uncontrolled invasion" that was "destroying America."
But it became something of a personal fight as well. Last December, Pearce was speaking against illegal immigration in Washington, D.C., when he received an urgent phone call. His son, a sheriff's deputy in Arizona, had been shot by an illegal immigrant during an arrest. His son recovered, and Pearce, who himself was shot by an immigrant during an arrest in 1977, insisted that his stance against undocumented aliens had nothing to do with any personal desire for revenge.
But in the wake of the shooting and the passage of Proposition 200, Pearce has brought a new intensity to the illegal immigration debate. In the most recent legislative session, he introduced bills to further restrict the services available to undocumented residents and to strengthen Arizona's ability to identify and prosecute "coyotes," smugglers who help immigrants cross the border and set up safehouses in the state. He has proposed erecting a wall that would run along Arizona's 389-mile border with Mexico. Pearce has spent part of his time the past few months meeting with legislators from other states who are interested in drafting similar bills cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Pearce's stubborn stance and harsh proposals have won him more than a few enemies. His opponents say his actions are fueled by racism and a dislike of immigrants in general. Pearce--who notes that his daughter- in-law is Hispanic--insists he is motivated not by race but by a devotion to the rule of law. His ardent supporters have urged him to run for governor or for the U.S. Senate. He says he hasn't decided yet whether he wants to do that.