- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

A poll shows Arizona voters overwhelmingly support a proposed ballot initiative that would cut off services to illegal immigrants, despite a wall of opposition from both Republican and Democratic politicians.

The poll, released last week by Arizona State University and KAET-TV, found that 70 percent of voters surveyed said they would back the initiative, even though organizers are still gathering signatures to place it on the November 2004 ballot.

“The voters love us, unlike the politicians. There’s a real disconnect there,” said Kathy McKee, director of Protect Arizona Now.

The public support for the initiative comes despite the opposition of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, and the state’s congressional delegation. Organizers say the split illustrates the public’s growing frustration with their elected leaders on illegal immigration.

“The voters want it, yet the whole elite of the state has lined up against it. That’s the state of immigration policy in America,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Before the voters can be heard, however, the Protect Arizona Now campaign needs to gather the signatures of 122,612 registered voters. With a shoestring budget, the initiative’s proponents plan to rely on volunteers instead of paid signature-gatherers.

The proposal will also have to contend with opposition from prominent Hispanic groups and leaders, now in the process of organizing. State Rep. Ben Miranda said the measure would cost millions to enforce, a factor that could change voters’ minds.

“My hope is that reasonable minds will prevail, and when they find out the true implications of this, they’ll think twice,” Mr. Miranda said.

Still, Mrs. McKee said she was confident they would collect enough signatures, noting that Arizona law gives them until July 1, 2004. If the signatures are approved, the measure would appear on the November 2004 ballot.

The proposal would require Arizonans to show proof of residency before receiving state social and welfare services. Federally mandated services such as public schooling would still be provided. The initiative would also require proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote and proof of identity when voting.

Bruce Merrill, the Arizona State University journalism professor who oversaw the poll, predicts that the initiative’s support will slip once the opposition campaign begins. Even so, he expects it will win by a comfortable margin.

“It’s still very early, and I would expect to see a vigorous campaign against this,” said Mr. Merrill. “But if this gets on the ballot, it has an overwhelming chance of passing,” he said, noting its 70 percent support. “That’s such an enormous percentage that it should win even if there’s some erosion.”

The statewide poll surveyed 390 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

The poll could also change some minds among state lawmakers. While the initiative has no Democratic support, some Republican state legislators are backing it, including state Reps. Russell Pearce and Randy Graf, who are serving as senior advisers to Protect Arizona Now.

Most Republicans are taking their cues from the White House, said Mrs. McKee, which doesn’t want to alienate Hispanic voters by appearing hostile to undocumented Mexican workers.

“The Republican Party has this attitude that we’ll hurt President Bush’s Hispanic outreach,” she said. “But the poll showed that 40 percent of Hispanic voters are supporting it. And we’re registering people to vote. If the Republican Party had any brains, they would get behind this because they could be out there registering voters.”

The party also remembers the aftermath of California’s Proposition 187, a similar measure supported by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994. The initiative passed, but was later blamed for energizing Democratic Hispanic voters and banishing Republicans to the political wilderness.

“The strategy of the Republican Party has been to try to keep these issues off the ballot to stop them from energizing the Hispanic vote,” Mr. Merrill said.

Camilla Strongin, the Arizona Republican Party’s spokeswoman, said the data on whether illegal aliens are actually skimming state benefits aren’t conclusive.

“Our position is that no one’s clearly defined how serious a problem this is,” said Ms. Strongin. “And there are already safeguards that exist within state agencies to prevent abuse.”

Even so, organizers say the public perception is that illegal immigration is out of control. The estimated number of illegal aliens in Arizona tripled from 88,000 in 1990 to 283,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The initiative’s supporters point to the drain on state hospitals, notably Maricopa County Hospital, which is reportedly losing $2 million each week because of the flood of illegal immigrants seeking care.

Meanwhile, the state’s welfare program has ballooned from $200 million in fiscal 2001 to $1.2 billion in fiscal 2002, an increase they say is due in part to illegal immigrants tapping into the system.

Protect Arizona Now’s backers also cite an anecdote in which former Republican Gov. Jane Hull attended a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens. When she encouraged them to register to vote afterward, about half of them told her it wasn’t necessary because they were already voting, according to campaign organizers.

“In this state, you just can’t miss what’s going on. It’s dire,” said Mrs. McKee. “The government is ignoring the law and in some cases breaking the law. People can’t close their eyes much longer.”

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