With Pearce Out, Where Does The Immigration Debate Go?
By Paul Atkinson
November 09, 2011

PHOENIX -- The architect of Arizona’s controversial immigration law is out. So what does it mean to immigration reform and the conservative movement?

Some say it could refocus the immigration debate. Conservatives answer there are many ready to carry on the cause.

Russell Pearce is the first lawmaker in state history to lose his seat in a recall election. It was a dramatic fall for a tough-talking Tea Party favorite who became one of Arizona’s most powerful politicians.

On the night he lost his seat as President of the Arizona senate, Russell Pearce sounded more reserved than usual.

“We’re the envy of this nation,” Pearce said. “I’ve got patriots from across this nation that email me and write me everyday thankful for what Arizona has done leading the way.”

Pearce has advocated anti illegal immigration policies for several years, but he is best known for SB 1070. The fury of publicity surrounding it elevated Pearce to national stardom when Arizona’s governor signed it into law last year. The senator became a role model for Tea Party conservatives and a frequent guest on national cable talk shows.

Photo courtesy Russell Pearce.
Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce.

“We have an obligation to enforce the law,” Pearce said in April 2010. “No longer can we stand by, sit on the sidelines and allow our citizens to be attacked, hurt, injured, jobs taken from Americans while we don’t enforce our law. We have policy that restricts them.”

A Federal judge put most of SB 1070 on hold. It’s now on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Along the way, Pearce’s brash approach gave opponents ammunition that was used to collect more than 10,000 signatures for his recall. Randy Parraz led the effort.

“Russell Pearce represents extremist type, divisive politics. And now we said no to that,” Parraz said. “He overreached and for the first time in the 100-year history of Arizona, a politician was recalled for that kind of abusive behavior.

Todd Landfried is with Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. He said Pearce’s departure can have a major impact on immigration policy if people realize the debate doesn’t have to be so polarizing.

“I think it could have a dramatic game changing impact,” Landfried said. “If those people can stand up and the business community can stand up and say: ‘We just saw that it was safe to talk about immigration on a more holistic level.’”

In other words, an immigration debate focused on constructive solutions instead of divisive rhetoric. But, Landfried says Pearce’s defeat is significant in another way: The Senate President is a Tea Party favorite.

“I think it’s a real threat to the Tea Party,” he said. “That says something about how people are starting to perceive the influence, or over influence or too large of focus on the Tea Party as a political philosophy. I think it’s wearing thin.”

Try telling that to Tea Party conservatives like Arizona state representative Eddie Farnsworth. He says Russell Pearce’s leadership will be missed at the state capitol, but there are others to carry on the cause.

“Russell isn’t the only conservative there,” Farnsworth said. “So the conservative movement and the principals of liberty will still be defended and those of us who agree with Russell will continue to push those issues and policies that we’ve all worked together on and you know, we’ll work through this.”

As for Pearce, he says he’ll regroup and relax for the time being. On election night, he thanked supporters in Arizona and elsewhere.

“You can’t do this without good people standing with you,” Pearce said. “I wouldn’t have put up with what I put up with without these good folks that depend on somebody stepping forward and defending these liberties we so love.”

Those who know the veteran lawmaker say he’ll continue to play a major role on immigration policy behind the scenes and expect him to run for office again.

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