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AZ City Might Shift Gears On Illegal Immigration

 New America Media, News Report, Valeria Fernández

MESA, AZ  – Mesa, the hometown of SB 1070’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Russell Pearce, is considering following in the footsteps of Utah, potentially taking the city in the opposite direction of the law that made it a crime to be undocumented in Arizona. 

But the consideration didn’t come without controversy in this city 30 miles east of Phoenix.

During a public comment hearing on Wednesday before the Human Rights Advisory Board, a citizen’s commission that operates independently from the City Council, the opinions voiced by Mesa residents reflected the polarizing views on illegal immigration in the state. They also underscored the distance they have to go in finding common ground.

The Utah Compact, signed into law on Nov. 11, 2010 with bipartisan support, laid out the principles that guide Utah in dealing with its 100,000 undocumented residents: The state would follow the rule of law, but oppose measures that would separate families by deportation.

The Utah Compact was endorsed by the Mormon Church – which is also deeply rooted in Mesa, and counts Sen. Pearce among its members.

Supporters of enacting a compact in Mesa said it would benefit the city economically by changing the state’s image after the passage of the controversial anti-immigration law SB 1070, which was partially enjoined by a federal judge.

“Let us, we the people, understand that a father who is simply trying to feed his family is not a threat or an action that threatens anybody’s individual rights or liberties,” said Mike Conway, a Mesa resident during the hearing.

Opponents argued that enacting legislation in Mesa would actually violate a provision of SB 1070 – one of the parts of the law that did go into effect -- that prohibits cities and localities from passing policies that restrict immigration enforcement, and imposes hefty fines on them if they do.

“Many of the advocates of this policy have a political agenda and they are trying to make the city of Mesa a pawn in their efforts. They want to be able to say, ‘See, even the city of Mesa rejects the policies of its favorite son, Russell Pearce,’” said Mesa resident Jim Schoen. “I don’t know what part of the ‘will of the majority of the voters in Arizona’ that they don’t understand.”

Opponents also raised concerns that supporting the compact in Mesa would lead to the passage of laws like those recently signed by Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. Under the new legislation that takes effect in 2013, Utah would grant a two-year work permit for undocumented immigrants who can prove they live in the state, pass a background check, and pay a $2,500 fine.

Utah also passed a law that has been likened to SB 1070, which would allow police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they arrest on a felony charge.

Utah Democratic Sen. Ben McAdams, who was involved in pushing for the Utah Compact, said Mesa residents may have a point. The document, he said, was precisely what made those bills possible, setting a different tone for the immigration debate in that state.

He told New America Media that the intent behind the Utah Compact was to move as far away as possible from legislation like SB 1070 that could have been damaging to their state’s economy. 

In Mesa, residents of various faiths offered their views on the city’s consideration of a compact. Among them were members of the Mormon Church who applauded their church’s endorsement of the document that calls on Arizona to welcome people of good will.

“How can we bring growth back to Mesa?” asked Julie Jorgensen, a teacher, Republican and member of the Mormon Church. “By showing we are a place that welcomes all people of good will.”

Many of the testimonies centered on how the compact would affect the city’s economy.

Supporters of the compact said it would revitalize Mesa, which saw many Latino businesses close their doors after the passage of several anti-immigrant laws in the state. Fears of the crackdown on immigrants caused some immigrant families to flee Arizona, causing a drop in student enrollment that led to a loss of funding for schools.

Opponents, meanwhile, emphasized concerns about violence coming across the border, terrorism, and crimes provoked by gangs in their neighborhoods.

“Mesa has become a sanctuary city,” said resident Randy Hatch, who complained that presence of businesses with Spanish-language signs has created “a culture within a culture.” 

“The facts are that illegal immigration has a huge impact on Mesa,” he said. “We have rolled out the carpet to illegal immigrants, without forethought of the unintended consequences. What would we look like 25 years from now? Would it be Detroit?”

The testimonies also shed light on the public’s views of the effectiveness of current immigration laws.

“I agree that families shouldn’t be separated if there are issues. The entire family should leave together and not be separated if the adults are illegal,” said Terry Johnson, a Mesa resident and out-of-work teacher.

She argued that people should come into the country following the legal path.

“If people could get here legally, don’t you think that they would?” responded resident Brenda Rascón, who is studying to get her PhD in biology. “A lot of people don’t understand that Latin America has a growing disparity, growing inequality, and people are moving north – and the drug war is actually scaring a lot of people and maybe more people would move north.”

The hearing took place nearly a week after the Arizona State Senate voted down five anti-immigrant laws. Several conservative Republicans who had supported measures like SB 1070 voted against the laws last week, citing concerns over their impact on the state’s economy. Sixty business executives in the state wrote a letter to Pearce, condemning the impact the boycott on Arizona had had on their own businesses.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said the Senate’s vote last week, and the business community’s increasing opposition to laws like SB 1070, have altered the immigration landscape and the tone of the conversation in the state.

“Some of the real issues are that you have a real conflict of American values,” Smith said. “The debates are about which value is going to rule the day. Are we going to be a stickler for the laws, or are we going to be the nation that invites compassion?”

Smith, who wasn’t present at the public hearing, supports the Utah Compact but said it was “unwise” to take something crafted for Utah and try to apply it in Arizona.

“In this discussion in Mesa, you need to be very careful to not insight flames that have been somewhat lessened,” he said.

The compact is a long way from being presented to the Mesa City Council for a vote. First it needs to be recommended by the Human Relations Advisory Board, a decision that could take several months.

Denise Heap was the only member of the advisory board to speak after the public comments.

She said that part of the reason the board took on the Utah Compact was in response to an atmosphere of increased hostility in Mesa and a spike in hate crimes in that city.

“It is our purpose as a board to try to get to the bottom and to also create an atmosphere that allows for a most cohesive, harmonious community, and one that values every person,” she said.

Others cities like Scottsdale could also consider adopting the Utah Compact.

“In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act here in our country. If you have put the Civil Rights Act to the voters of the southern states, it would have not passed,” said Carolina Castillo Buttler, a resident of Scottsdale who supports the document. “There are some things that leaders cannot leave to the voters. You have to lead.”

The group behind the push, East Valley Patriots for American Values, said they submitted the compact to the citizens’ advisory board because they wanted the state to move away from anti-immigrant legislation that is hurting communities and the economy.

Dan Martinez, a retired community college professor and one of the founders of the non-partisan grassroots group, said the idea was to start a civil dialogue outside of the divisive immigration debate in Arizona.

“The lack of civil conversation means that people take a lot of misinformation and say this is the truth. We want to put the facts out there,” said Martinez. “Not everybody in Mesa agrees with what Russell Pearce is doing.”

STORY TAGS: Hispanic News, Latino News, Mexican News, Minority News, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Racism, Diversity, Latina, Racial Equality, Bias, Equality


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