The Man Behind Arizona's Border Fence
Photo by Devin Browne.
CASA GRANDE -- The line-up of elected officials picked to introduce state Senator Steve Smith at his first border fence fundraiser July 25 was a veritable Who’s Who of Arizona’s most outspoken immigration-enforcement advocates: Attorney General Tom Horne, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and state Senate President Russell Pearce. Of the latter, Smith told the crowd there’s no one he would rather model his political career after more.
“When I had this idea of running,” Smith said. “I looked through the whole legislature and I said: ‘Well, who do I identify with? Who do I want to talk to, who do I want advice from?’ I asked one person. I asked Russell Pearce.”
The feeling is mutual.
Of Smith, Pearce, the SB 1070 champion, said: “I want tell you, I have paperwork in to adopt Steve.”
Pearce went on: “I love this young man. I appreciate his vigilance and his love for country, his love for God, his love for family.”
God, family, country. This was actually one of Smith’s campaign slogans when he ran for office last year, and won – the first Republican to represent the Casa Grande district as a state senator in nearly a century. The area's sudden shift in political leaning comes mainly from a similarly sudden shift in demographics, primarily because of transplants like Smith.
The senator was born and bred in Michigan, then migrated to Arizona in 2001, at the beginning of the boom. First he worked in the bio-tech industry; now, he’s the director of a talent agency.
Eventually, Smith settled in the City of Maricopa, which was, at the time, the fastest growing city in the state.
“I just loved coming out here because -- well, first, it was new. And my wife likes new,” Smith said. “I mean new buildings and new restaurants, I mean nothing was 60 years old. It was all built in the last seven to eight years. Yet much like Maricopa itself, underneath the newness is a deep affinity for the traditional. ”
Smith is a devout Christian and goes with his wife and two young daughters to church every Sunday. I say "church" though they actually congregate in a middle school and sit on pews made of cafeteria tables to hear the message. Similarly, in Smith's brand new home, in his brand new subdivision, he hangs portraits of George Washington and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“I’ve always been Mr. USA. I’ve always loved this country,” Smith said. “I remember getting in a tussle at school; I think we were in the in seventh grade, and it was just silly conversation and someone was saying something against America -- I mean, I’ve always been that kind of Midwestern kid, you know: God, family, country. And that's what I live for and that's what I live by.”
New housing developments aside, Smith said he does not like the other ways he sees his country changing. In Michigan, he watched a nearby city approve Muslim prayer calls, while banning church bells. In Arizona, he's horrified by the phenomenon he refers to as "Press Two For Spanish."
“Don't make me change my country for where you come from,” the senator said. “If you don't like this country with you, you wanna bring your language with you, your gangfare with you, stay where you were! Or face the consequences. But don't make me change because you don't want to.”
Smith introduced five immigration-related bills this year, most of them written to cut off social services to people who are in the country illegally. Even in Arizona, the bills were controversial. Only two passed -- one of which allows the state to raise private funds for a border fence.
"Here's the biggest issue in everything related to the border: If we truly wanted to secure the border, we could,” Smith said. “The problem is, we don't.”
Smith, on the other hand, does. To this end, he recently announced the web headquarters for his fundraising campaign: buildtheborderfence.com. His first goal is $50 million dollars.
Though even if these millions are raised for the fence, there’s still the question of where to put it. Ahead for Smith is an intricate and complex network of private, state, and reservation landholders, environmental constraints, not to mention the federal government.
Yet Smith remains undeterred. Asked at a recent Republican gathering what he would do if said federal government tried to stop him from building the fence, Smith laughed and replied: “Well, they can try.”