3 Reasons Arizona Is Ground Zero for Immigration Policy

PHOTO: sb1070Scott Olson/Getty Images
Litzy Medina waits waits to join a march through downtown to protest Arizona's controversial immigration law SB1070 on May 29, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.

While President Obama speaks about the economy at a Phoenix high school on Tuesday, protesters will be outside, reminding the public about his record on immigration.

That's what we've come to expect in recent years.

Arizona became ground zero in the immigration debate when the state passed a law meant to curb illegal immigration in 2010. Critics said that the "show me your papers" law, SB 1070, was discriminatory, and the Supreme Court ruled much of it unconstitutional two years after it was signed into law.

But immigration is still a huge issue in Arizona. Here's why:

1. Location Yeah, we're kind of pointing out the obvious here: Arizona is a border state.

But the number of apprehensions -- immigrants caught crossing the border illegally -- spiked in the Tucson area during the mid-1990s and through the 2000s.

Part of the reason was a plan by Border Patrol to secure traditional smuggling routes and force migrants into more hostile terrain, outlined in a 1994 agency document.

The plan specifically called for locking down the San Diego and El Paso corridors, which more heavily trafficked by migrants at the time. Apprehensions in both those areas dropped off dramatically in the decade that followed.

Over the same period, traffic in Arizona's Tucson sector heated up. The number of people getting caught in that area increased more than fourfold over six years, going from 139,473 apprehensions in 1994 to a record-setting 616,346 in 2000.

2. Demographics Arizona is also a state with rapidly changing demographics. Basically, it's getting more Hispanic.

Among the counties that had the fastest-growing Hispanic populations from 2000 to 2007, Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes parts of Phoenix, placed second with nearly 420,000 new Hispanic residents over that time. Only Los Angeles had more.

And these new residents were coming to a state that didn't have a large Latino population, at least compared to places like California and Texas. Hispanics made up 17 percent of Arizona residents in 1970; they made up more than 30 percent in 2012.

But changing demographics alone aren't what made immigration a major issue. These guys played a role:

3. Politicians For some insight into the political history in Arizona, I reached out to Terry Greene Sterling, a journalist and the author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone.

Sterling boiled it down to a few big moments.

First, there was the rise of the Tea Party in the state. Republican politicians like former State Senator Russell Pearce campaigned on stricter immigration policies, attracting voters who didn't want to see Arizona's Hispanic population to continue growing.

As Tea Party conservatives came to dominate the state legislature, they were able to pass the granddaddy of all bills against illegal immigration, SB 1070.

But even that might not have passed if it wasn't for a decision by the Obama administration. When the president tapped then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to become his secretary of homeland security in 2009, he upset the balance of power in the state.

Napolitano, a Democrat, left office to head to Washington. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer took her place, eventually signing SB 1070 into law. Had Napolitano stayed in Arizona, she likely would have vetoed the bill.