Does Russell Pearce's Recall Election in Arizona Signify A Shift in Attitudes Towards Immigrants?

Almost a year and a half after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the controversial SB 1070 immigration bill into law, school cafeteria worker Ana Rosa Vera voted to oust local Senate President Russell Pearce, one of the most powerful and divisive politicians in the state and the main force behind the state’s tough anti-immigration law, emulated by other states. 

The historic recall election left Vera and other Latinos hopeful that the anti-immigrant climate will subside. “I believe life can improve for Latinos, but it will take some time,” she said. “You can’t rebuild in a month or two after a disaster.”

Pearce, who served in the Arizona Legislature for 11 years, lost his seat to fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, 53 percent to 45 percent. The pair ran fierce campaigns to represent Mesa, AZ, a conservative district east of Phoenix. The third candidate, a Latina, dropped out of the race after being accused of running for the seat only to split the vote and keep Pearce in office.

With the recall, Latinos also took notice that their vote counts, said Vera. “People who don’t normally go to the polls now know that they can make a difference, and that if we come together we can bring about positive change in our communities.”

The message from the recall election is that Arizonans don’t want a divided state, said Petra Falcon, Executive Director of Promise Arizona in Action.

“This state wants to come together to find solutions to lots of issues, not just on immigration but also on the economy, jobs, education.”

Keeping up the momentum of the recall effort is key to effecting lasting impact not just in Arizona but nationally, Falcon said. For weeks, volunteers with her organization and other groups knocked on doors in Pearce’s district and urged Latinos to vote.

“What we did was encourage engagement of voters,” she said. “We have to continue doing that.”

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, AZ, said it is significant that Latino voters in Pearce’s district (official numbers are not yet known) helped unseat “the poster boy of these harsh immigration laws across the country.”

Politicians in Arizona and beyond who focus solely on an anti-immigrant agenda will “have to think twice about continuing this kind of rhetoric,” said Grijalva, instead of dealing with critical matters such as the high unemployment rate and the bad economy.

He pointed to a new Arizona State University poll as proof that Arizonans are ready to embrace immigration reform. The poll shows that 78 percent of state residents strongly favor allowing longtime undocumented immigrants to gain legal status provided they speak English, pass criminal backgrounds checks and pay a fine and taxes.

“That shift is going on,” insists Grijalva, who called for a state boycott after last year's passage of SB 1070.

Immigrant rights advocates agree. Pearce’s defeat “may well be the election that finally turns the tide on the rise of the anti-immigrant xenophobia in America,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

SB 1070 gives local and state police the power to enforce federal immigration laws but its most controversial provisions remain tied up in court.