July 2, 2004
A grass-roots effort to discourage illegal immigration has survived attacks from the political establishment and intense squabbling among supporters to deliver a proposed initiative Thursday with a large cushion of voter signatures.
Protect Arizona Now turned in 190,887 petition signatures to Secretary of State Jan Brewer just before the deadline to qualify for the November general election. The initiative would require voters to show identification and force government officials to ask if someone is a legal resident before offering public benefits, which supporters describe as welfare assistance.
State law requires at least 122,612 valid signatures to be placed on the ballot. So under normal circumstances, Protect Arizona Now would have plenty of leeway as election officials check a random selection of petitions.
But this campaign has been anything but normal.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s entire congressional delegation and most other politicians object to the measure as poorly crafted and anti-Hispanic.
Polls appear to show strong public support, but Protect Arizona Now had trouble collecting signatures when it tried to rely solely on volunteers. In-fighting erupted after the group’s leaders turned to national immigrant control groups for funding to hire paid circulators.
Still, more than 40,000 signatures were submitted to Protect Arizona Now in the final 24 hours, said committee chairwoman Kathy McKee.
"I do think this sends a loud and clear message that if people have an opportunity, they will sign it in a heartbeat," McKee said.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights and immigrant support groups has organized to oppose the initiative. The group, though, has laid little groundwork. Nearly all of the $38,480 raised so far by the Statue of Liberty Coalition has been paid to a consultant from Strawberry, leaving less than $80 in cash.
"We have a $2 million budget, but as you know, you never raise as much in politics as you hope for," said coalition spokesman Alfredo Gutierrez. "Even if we had the money, it’s very unlikely that we would able to go on the air because all the time has been bought by the presidential campaigns. It’s going to be a volunteer campaign, a print campaign and by mail. That’s what we’re going to focus on."
Gutierrez said he didn’t even know if the coalition might ask a judge to block the initiative to avoid a costly election.
If the petition qualifies for the ballot, Arizona will be watched closely by various sides of the immigration debate across the country. Efforts to place similar measures before voters in California, Colorado and other states failed this year. So Arizona will be a next test case of the public’s will to force state and local governments to take some responsibility for a traditionally federal issue.
In itiative supporters believe their hardest work is over as frustration grows with a rise in border-crossing deaths and recent gunbattles between people smugglers. Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he expects voters to easily approve the measure.
"They want their places of election protected . . . and they want their tax dollars protected from fraud,’’ Pearce said.
But opponents predict the initiative faces an endless series of legal challenges that would make it useless, similar to California’s Prop. 187 adopted a decade ago.
They point out the Arizona initiative couldn’t stop immigrants from sending their children to public schools or from getting emergency medical care, because those services are protected by federal law. State officials insist illegal immigrants also aren’t eligible for Medicaid or state welfare assistance, but initiative backers claim the government isn’t enforcing those rules.
Gutierrez said the initiative’s failure to define "public benefits" means there will be widely differing interpretations.
"As layman, that includes all public benefits from library cards to public safety and everything in between," Gutierrez said.
Elements of the proposed Arizona Taxpayer and Citizens Protection Act include:
• Require proof of citizenship to register to vote
• Check government identification before someone can cast an election ballot in person, or use of a provisional ballot where the voter’s signature is later verified
• Confirm legal residency before providing public benefits not mandated by the federal government
• State and local employees must report to the federal government if they discover an illegal immigrant requesting public benefits. Failure to report would be a class 2 misdemeanor