Russell Pearce defeated, wake up call for anti-immigrant lawmakers

The powerful Republican state senator who authored Arizona’s controversial and notorious anti-immigrant bill SB 1070, became the first sitting lawmaker in Arizona history to lose his seat in a recall election Tuesday night, Nov. 8.

Russell Pearce conceded defeat in a historic recall election widely seen as a referendum on his tough, and some say inhuman, stance against undocumented immigrants.

Pearce who represented a suburban Phoenix district, lost against fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, who won with 53 percent of the vote over Pearce’s 46 percent.

Pearce is known as the chief architect of SB 1070, which he sponsored, and became the focus of national headlines and legal challenges, including from the Obama administration.

Enactment of the bill, signed by Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer in April 2010, ignited a furor among Latinos and civil rights groups. Opponents also issued calls for an economic boycott against Arizona.

A federal judge threw out major provisions of the law, including a mandate for police to question the immigration status of suspected undocumented immigrants.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the law overstepped Arizona’s authority. The state is seeking a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to settle the issue.

“With Sen. Russell Pearce’s defeat in this recall election, everyone who practices the politics of fear and division was put on notice,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., to CNN.

“It’s not a substantive platform, and his own constituents clearly said they demand more from their elected officials. It’s a game-changer for the state of Arizona that’s going to have serious, and I think very positive, ripple effects all across the country.”

Dulce Matuz, a young immigrant rights activist and chairwoman of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition based in Phoenix agrees with the congressman. She feels satisfied with the election results.

“All the hard work knocking on doors in the heat everyday has really paid off,” said Matuz. “It’s a new day and a new image for Arizona politics.”

The immigrant community has been terrorized and denied equal opportunities in Arizona for too long and the defeat of Pearce sends a loud and clear message that we have had enough, said Matuz. She said too many undocumented youth are clinically depressed and feel worthless because they are treated like second-class citizens.

“Everybody was watching this election including other elected officials in Arizona,” said Matuz. “They’re going to have to think twice now about their actions when it comes to the immigrant community. Dream activists will continue to be active in politics and we’re going to continue to register voters especially those in the Latino community and youth because we deserve to be respected and have our voice heard.”

Matuz says the recent election victory over Pearce is a motivating factor looking ahead toward the 2012 elections.

“Our vote does matter and our vote does count,” she said. “There will be consequences and we will continue to demand fair, humane and equal treatment for the Latino and immigrant community.”

It’s important that youth, the immigrant and Latino community get involved and play a role in helping to decide how immigration policies reflect our rights, said Matuz. “If we’re going to change things, then everybody needs to get active.”

Matuz said her group is focused on a campaign to repeal proposition 300 in Arizona, a measure enforced in 2007 that makes undocumented students pay out of state tuition and authorizes extreme barriers for immigrant students to access higher education.

Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer, a strong supporter of Pearce, approved the recall election challenge after more than 10,000 signatures were collected in a petition drive.

Lewis, the victor, called for a more cooperative approach on immigration that should be free from “fear-mongering and political rhetoric.” Lewis said he intends to work with the federal government on a comprehensive solution and not battle them in court.

Both Pearce and Lewis are Republicans and Mormon. A source close to the Lewis campaign said that many Mormons voted for Lewis because he showed a more compassionate approach to immigration.

Mormon voters may have been influenced by the announcement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints last summer of a moderate position on immigration that rejects enforcement-only approaches like SB 1070. The church called for a comprehensive immigration reform premised on principles of loving one’s neighbor and protecting families.

The LDS Church also offered public support for the Utah Compact, a multi-faceted set of immigration laws praised nationwide as a sensible and compassionate departure from the strict enforcement policies in states across the country modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070. 

Supporters note there is a growing population of Latinos in the Mormon Church in the U.S. and throughout Latin America.

Photo: Miroslava Acosta, 4, holds a sign in protest of Arizona’s decision to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, after a decision by a lower court that put the most controversial parts of the state’s immigration enforcement law on hold, during a rally at the Arizona State Capital in Phoenix, May 9. (Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic/AP)



Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.