Immigration still a 'political hot potato' in Arizona

PHOENIX -- While some of Arizona's key political races this year are dominated by illegal immigration, the issue has virtually disappeared from the presidential campaigns and debates.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who championed a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill three years ago, has barely addressed the topic even though it remains a hot-button controversy in his home state. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who also supports an overhaul, has been nearly as mum.

During three presidential debates, the word "immigration" was uttered only once, according to a check of transcripts posted online by the Commission on Presidential Debates. In that one instance, McCain accused Obama of misrepresenting McCain's position on the topic. There was no further discussion.

Brooks Jackson, director at Annenberg Political Fact Check, chuckles when asked about the lack of discourse about national illegal immigration. "It has not been an issue aimed at the larger electorate," he says. Both candidates, he says, have run Spanish-language ads targeting Hispanic voters on the topic.

'Why is it off the radar?'

By contrast, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio seeks re-election in the Phoenix metro area based largely on his effort to round up and deport illegal immigrants — an enforcement program condemned by Hispanic leaders and Mayor Phil Gordon as "racial profiling."

Arpaio is the top law officer in a county that, at 9,200 square miles, is bigger than New Jersey, and has a larger population —3.8 million — than half of the states.

The sheriff mocks both presidential candidates for dodging the issue: "Where did it go? Why is it off the radar?" he says. "I'm not an expert on politics, but I think it has to do with (getting) the Hispanic vote."

When asked for comment on the sheriff's programs, Obama's Arizona campaign spokesman David Cieslak, provided a campaign statement that said local immigration enforcement "can lead to unintentional discrimination against Latinos," and illegal alien roundups are "divisive."

McCain's campaign did not respond to questions about the sheriff's programs. Bruce Merrill, a pollster at Arizona State University, says the caution is understandable: Immigration is the hottest issue in Arizona next to America's economic meltdown, and about seven in 10 registered voters strongly support Arpaio.

"It's a political hot potato," says Elias Bermudez, founder and chairman of a Phoenix-based advocacy group called Immigrants Without Borders. "They don't want to touch it because it will alienate their base in both parties."

The most recent statewide poll, the Cronkite-Eight Poll from Arizona State University conducted Sept. 25-28, showed McCain leading Obama 45% to 38%. In 2004, President Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry 55% to 44%. In 2000, Bush beat Gore 51% to 45%.

The last Democrat to win in Arizona was President Clinton, who defeated Dole in 1996 for a second term. Clinton got 47% to Dole's 44%.

Sheriff, McCain at odds

Bermudez, a McCain supporter, notes that both candidates have endorsed a potential pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA, a program reviled as "amnesty" by conservatives.

Obama might lose undecided voters if he speaks out against Arpaio, Bermudez says, and McCain would lose staunch conservatives; so the strategy is silent disapproval.

"I have spoken to him (McCain) personally about Arpaio," Bermudez says, "and I believe him when he says he is totally opposed to what the sheriff is doing. … But I don't want McCain to get involved with something like that because I want him to win the presidency. Then I know he'll deliver on his promise."

McCain, who endorsed Arpaio's opponent in the last sheriff's election, knows the sheriff's political wrath. Arpaio campaigned for Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary, and trashed McCain in his new book, Joe's Law: America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else That Threatens America.

Other Arizona Republicans also blast McCain on illegal immigration. State Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, said he felt "betrayed and brokenhearted" when the senator promoted an amnesty plan. "It's rewarding people who have broken the law," he said.

Russell Schmunk, 85, of Cave Creek, Ariz., says he loves "Sheriff Joe's" immigration policy: "We don't need … pansies, guys who slap your wrist. I hope he sweeps it clean, sweeps everybody out."

James Lopez, 46, a Phoenix UPS driver who supports Obama, says Arpaio's roundups are ineffective, but showy: "I think he's more of a media hound," he says.

Gordon, the Phoenix mayor, asked the Justice Department to investigate because motorists in Arizona are being arrested for "driving while brown."

Arpaio denies racial profiling and notes that his deputies are certified by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. He says he'll vote for McCain but has a message for both candidates: "It (illegal immigration) is a violation of law. When they come across the border, you put 'em in jail."

Wagner reports for The Arizona Republic