Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s appointment to US Attorney General, if confirmed, will run point on immigration and border enforcement. Sessions drew to an inside straight when Trump won. Once shut out as a fringe player, he has been ushered into the center of the new administration – a good fit for Trump who began his campaign by calling Mexicans entering the USA “rapists” and “criminals”.
Sessions is a smarter, better dressed version of Russell Pearce, a politician who’s obsession with immigrants drove the nation’s most repressive anti-immigrant legislation for more than a decade. For five years of Governor Janet Napolitano’s administration his ambitions were stalled by her vetoes. When she left to head the Department of Homeland Security, Pearce was unbound. A raft of his legislation was signed into law by incoming Governor Jan Brewer.
Pearce fully embraced fantasy-land threats posed by immigrants conjured up over the years. He proved out as a blunt force instrument for anti-immigrant propaganda and legislative assault. What happened to Pearce is that his one note agenda, true believer that he was, finally wore thin in a way that led to his crushing defeat in a legislative primary race in 2014.
Russell Pearce worked hand in glove with two law enforcement politicians, one in the twilight of his career the other on the rise – Sheriffs Joe Arpaio (Maricopa County) and Paul Babeu (Pinal County). Tuned to the Pearce mantra – torment and dehumanize immigrants to reduce their numbers in Arizona – Arpaio and Babeu made national names, shuffling in and out of Fox News shows, drawing crowds, and burnishing their resumes with high profile endorsements of other politicians, including John McCain, seeking to capitalize on anti- immigrant energy.
In 2016 both sheriffs won their respective Republican primaries. And both were badly beaten in the general. Their obsessive preoccupation with immigration did them in. Exit polls showed that only about 1 in 10 voters named immigration as their most important issue, and three-quarters said they supported a path to legal status for immigrants.
Arpaio’s downfall stemmed in part from a criminal contempt-of-court charge for his acknowledged defiance of a judge’s order in a racial profiling case based on actions of his immigration patrols. His immigration obsessions generated intense opposition and landed him in federal court at great cost to taxpayers.
Babeu, known only for his hard line on immigration and hyperbolic fear mongering, failed to become a credible voice on other issues more important to voters in Arizona Congressional District 1. He carried his home county – Pinal – by only 1624 votes. In contrast, Trump carried Pinal County by roughly 25,000 votes as did Senator John McCain against challenger Ann Kirkpatrick. Babeu lost the election in overwhelmingly Republican Pinal. His inability to come close to matching Trump and McCain doomed his chances as Democratic opponent Tom O’Halleran rolled up a big margin of about 15,000 votes in Coconino County alone.
Babeu himself attributes his defeat by roughly 17,000 votes to the ethics hammering he took from $2.5 million spent by the DNC targeting his candidacy. That was a factor but his hyper identification with the immigration issue which was rapidly loosing traction with voters spelled ultimate defeat.
If Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump track in the same direction long term as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Sheriff Paul Babeu and State Senator Russell Pearce – embracing a fantasy world that scapegoats and demeans immigrants – I suspect they will meet the same fate. The Arizona experience suggests that immigration politics is a double edged sword capable of slicing up the most ardent of politicians – true believer and opportunist alike.
About the author, Frank Pierson: My wife Mary Ellen Kazda and I moved to Oracle, AZ from Queens, NYC in March of 1979. We left the world of professional organizing with the IAF to head west. For a time we worked together building cabinets. I returned to full time organizing with IAF in March of 1990 after a stint as a civic participation consultant and community college class recruiter. Shortly after arriving in Oracle we became actively engaged in local community issues and organizations. Over the years we helped spearhead drives to close a a nearby toxic waste dump, discourage massive housing developments proposed to ring the town, build the Oracle Community Center, organize an Oracle Town Hall Steering Committee, and strengthen community responses to catastrophic fire. One or both of us have served on virtually every non-profit board in town from the mental health clinic to the Oracle Historical Society.