Arizona releases pent-up anger

PHOENIX — The frustration had been building for years in Arizona with every drug-related kidnapping, every home invasion, every "safe house" discovered crammed with illegal immigrants from Mexico.

The tensions spilled over this month with passage of the nation's toughest law against illegal immigration, a measure that has put Arizona at the center of the heated debate over how to deal with the millions of people who sneak into the United States every year.

A number of factors combined to produce the law: a heavily conservative Legislature, the ascent of a Republican governor, anger over the federal government's failure to secure the border, and growing anxiety over crime that reached a fever pitch last month with the slaying of an Arizona rancher, apparently by an illegal immigrant.

"The public wants something done. They're tired of it," said state Sen. Russell Pearce, who sponsored the legislation. "They've seen the ineptness and the malfeasance on the part of the government, and they're frustrated."

The new law makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally and directs police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal.

Critics warned that the law could result in racial profiling and other abuses, and they are planning a legal challenge and a November referendum to overturn the measure. Supporters of the law say it is a commendable effort to combat what is fast becoming a scourge in the United States.

Arizona is the biggest gateway into the United States for illegal immigrants. The state is home to an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, a population larger than that of entire cities such as Cleveland, St. Louis and New Orleans.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has backed a series of tough immigration measures in the past decade, only to have the most aggressive efforts thwarted by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.

But the political stars aligned this year for the GOP. President Barack Obama appointed Napolitano to his Cabinet, clearing the way for Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer to take over as governor. The GOP made a headlong rush back into the immigration debate, and Brewer signed the bill last week.

The law reflects frustration with what many lawmakers see as inaction by the federal government.

"While the Bush administration dropped the ball on border security and illegal immigration, the Obama administration can't even find it," said GOP state Rep. John Kav-anagh.

He said lawmakers also felt compelled to act because more immigrants will come to the United States as the economy improves and there is a "smell of amnesty in the air" under the Obama administration.

Over the past three years, Border Patrol agents have made 990,000 arrests of immigrants crossing the border illegally into Arizona, or an average of 900 a day. The figures represent 45 percent of all arrests of illegal immigrants along U.S. borders.

Authorities routinely come across safe houses and vehicles jammed with immigrants across the vast Arizona desert.

The volume of drugs coming through the Arizona border is eye-popping. Federal agents seized 1.2 million pounds of marijuana last year in Arizona. That amounts to an average of 1½ tons per day.

Phoenix has been dubbed the kidnapping capital of the United States amid a surge of extortion-related abductions tied to drugs and human smuggling. The city has averaged about 1 kidnapping a day in recent years, some resulting in torture and death.

The anger over immigration-related violence reached a boiling point in late March when popular cattle rancher Rob Krentz was gunned down on his property near the border.

With authorities suspecting an illegal immigrant, politicians seized on the killing to argue that border security is dangerously weak.

"It's something that should have been taken care of for years. It's not something we can keep slacking on," said Thomas Fitch, whose neighborhood near the Arizona Cardinals stadium was the site of a raid last month that netted 11 illegal immigrants in a safe house. "At the rate we're going now, it's going to get a lot worse."

As the backlash grows over the law, people such as Natalia Garcia are closely watching to see how it plays out. She and her husband are illegal immigrants and are afraid they will get swept up.

"It's taking away our human rights because we have brown skin," she said in Spanish at a Phoenix grocery store, adding that they will move their family back to Mexico if arrested. "Although we'll live poor, it's better to be together."

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