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While Napolitano was extraordinarily popular in Arizona, she struggled throughout her tenure to find points of agreement with her Republican-majority legislature. Russell Pearce, a far-right conservative who has publicly referred to Mexicans as "wetbacks" and has ties to white supremacists, became her nemesis. Pearce was elected to Arizona's House of Representatives in 2000, and would later move to the Arizona Senate. He and his allies barraged Napolitano's desk with bills that reflected a purist conservative agenda: One bill would have allowed drunkards to carry a loaded gun into a bar. In total, Napolitano vetoed 180 of these bills — setting a state record.
The slew of immigration bills championed by Pearce and his ilk were similarly doctrinaire: They wanted English declared as Arizona's "official language," they wanted Arizonans to finance the construction of a prison in Mexico for "illegal aliens," they wanted law enforcement and public officials to aggressively investigate suspected undocumented immigrants with no mandate for proper training. It is a telling indication of Arizona's political climate vis-à-vis immigrants that many of these bills ultimately became law after Napolitano left office.
In 2004, Pearce decided he had had enough of Napolitano's vetoes. So he and others gathered enough signatures to turn one of their proposals into a ballot proposition; under Arizona law, ballot initiatives require only a simple majority of public votes and, once passed, are nearly impossible for the governor or the legislature to change. Proposition 200 was driven by the fear that undocumented immigrants were abusing public services and even voting surreptitiously. It required photo identification and proof of citizenship to vote, and it required all state and local public employees to check the immigration status of families who applied for any type of aid. Despite opposition from Senator John McCain and the Arizona Republican party, 56 percent voted in favor of it. (A federal court later nullified the proof-of-citizenship-to-vote requirement.) While a strong majority of Latino Americans typically support a progressive immigration agenda, 47 percent of Latinos voted for Proposition 200, according to CNN exit polls.
Greene, the activist who described Napolitano as a "triangulator," considers Napolitano's actions concerning Proposition 200 to be "heroic." After the initiative passed, Napolitano's staff worked with the Arizona Attorney General's Office to significantly limit the scope of the law. For example, they determined that the law did not apply to federal programs like subsidized school lunches and food stamps. Even after she was challenged in court and lambasted by her opponents, Napolitano stood her ground.
But after sticking her neck out, Napolitano was feeling the political heat. As the economy worsened in Mexico, undocumented immigrants streamed into Arizona at an even faster pace. An average of five to six thousand immigrants per day were attempting to cross at Arizona's southern border — representing more than half of all the attempted crossings in the United States. Many centrist Arizonians increasingly felt that, while the federal government had taken action in California, it was not doing enough in Arizona. So in 2005, Napolitano declared a state of emergency and ordered the National Guard to deploy along Arizona's border. It was the first time any governor had taken such action, and the move was well-received by the vast majority of Arizonans. The next year, Napolitano won a second term with 63 percent of the vote.
In 2007, Napolitano signed an employer sanctions law that allowed the state to revoke a business owner's license if the company was twice caught hiring undocumented workers. Immigration hawks praised her, but progressives and business leaders assailed her, arguing that the law would weaken the state's economy and embolden vigilante groups. In a 2008 interview with MORE Magazine, Napolitano claimed: "If I had vetoed that bill, the wrath of God would have descended. The immigration debate is red-hot here [in Arizona]."
In the same interview (and in many others), Napolitano reiterated her support for comprehensive immigration reform and particularly for the DREAM Act. Referring to a Dreamer who had surprised her during a town hall meeting with a pointed question about his inability to attend college, Napolitano said: "That young man has all the potential in the world. If you put that student up in front of a lot of Arizonans, they'd say, 'Of course I want him to succeed.' But if you put up a ballot measure and ask, 'Should we spend tax dollars for college tuition for illegal immigrants?' they'll vote no. When you go from the specific to the abstract, you lose that boy's face."
Michael Haener, Napolitano's director of legislative affairs at the time, told me that Napolitano felt the immigration bills coming out of the legislature were generally "mean-spirited" in nature and likely to be abused if they became law. But he said her decision on employer sanctions — a concept she supported in the context of broader immigration reform — came down to a strategic calculation that it was better to dilute the bill through negotiations with Republicans than to allow it to end up as a ballot initiative. Critics insisted the bill would not have succeeded as a ballot initiative; they wanted to see her take a principled stand, as she had on Proposition 200. But Jeanine L'Ecuyer, Napolitano's then-communications director, said the governor was weighing many competing priorities. "If she was going to continue to veto it, and it was going to gum up the works, and no other business gets done, you actually create a larger problem," L'Ecuyer said. "We have seen the example of the federal government getting stalled. She was very good at making sure that did not happen in Arizona."
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