Politicians won’t make a splash in Arizona

The mountains are hues of pink, peach and burnt orange. They match the desert.

A few days after our arrival in Phoenix, we Hubert H Humphrey fellows got a political briefing from a former journalist, now an academic at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He put things in perspective for us: "It's a crazy state."

His entertaining briefing included details of Maricopa County's ultra-conservative Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who talks tough on illegal immigrants and jails drunk drivers in a place called "tent city", way out in the desert. Yes, inmates are held in tents. For fun, he makes them wear pink pyjamas. Arpaio is feared and loathed by some but respected for his straight talking by those who believe he has cracked down on crime. He brings to mind a former South African top cop, who also strolled down the streets wearing a Stetson.

Arpaio became known outside Arizona when he announced that he was investigating President Barack Obama's birth certificate, placing himself squarely in the so-called "birther movement" on the right, alongside people such as Donald Trump, who raised questions about Obama's citizenship.

Another top Arizona Republican, Sheriff Paul Babeu, was outspoken on the issue of illegal immigration. He was part of a 2008 John McCain presidential campaign advert that advocated building a wall along Arizona's border with Mexico to halt the stream of illegal immigrants.

Earlier this year, however, the same steely, no-nonsense official was accused of threatening his gay Mexican and (illegal) immigrant lover with deportation. He denied making the threats but did confirm he is gay. The scandal has scuppered his climb up the political ladder; he has ditched his plans to run for Congress and was dropped as the Arizona co-chair of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Papers please
The law he aimed to use to deport his lover is called SB 1070, colloquially the "papers please" legislation. This controversial anti-immigration law has been challenged in various courts by the federal government, but it is enforceable in Arizona as of this month. (We fellows are also subject to it; it's like carrying a dompas all over again.) The law's detractors have claimed it is discriminatory, allows for racial profiling and enables the harassment, detainment and deportation of Latinos. Proponents say it aims to ensure people who are in the US illegally face the consequences.

The law says that during police operations or traffic roadblocks police may ask those they deem "reasonably suspicious" to produce  immigration papers or anything that proves they are in the country legally. "Reasonably suspicious", of course, can be widely interpreted and abused. Members of the Latino community staged a protest last week to voice their dismay that the court had given the go-ahead for what they call a draconian and discriminatory measure.

Our political informant, however, contends that the issue of illegal immigration is a political red herring; neither party seriously wants to tackle it or has the appetite or wherewithal to do so. In reality, he says, politicians know that being harsh on immigrants would have a detrimental effect on the economy. In Arizona, 30% of the population is Latino, and most, he says, are in the country illegally. "They are the ones doing the jobs most Americans don't want to do."

He says the system is toothless in enforcing laws that prevent companies from employing illegal immigrants. So everyone turns a blind eye – until the next noisy election comes along.

He may be right. Socially and professionally, people here seem highly integrated; one doesn't get the sense of a people in the throes of ethnic division or tension. The sixth-largest city in the United States, Phoenix is a place where you see all sorts, and you often forget you are in the Southwest – or I did, until the day I bumped into a middle-aged gentleman, in full cowboy attire, who raised his Stetson in greeting and called me "Ma'am". I felt like I'd stepped into a Louis l'Amour novel!

Proverbial elephant
Our political informant believes that the real issue in Arizona is water. Yet no one talks about that. It is the proverbial elephant in the desert. Arizona has no natural water supply. It sources water from the neighbouring state's Colorado River. Two other states are also dependent on the Colorado, and they are closer to it so it is cheaper for them to draw water. This, our political tutor suggests, is the real driver of the crackdown on new immigrants: an increase in population means less water for everyone.

On the national front, there isn't a dull day in this electoral race. Each candidate's fortunes shift daily, like a desert sandstorm – rising high one moment, then dissipating the next.

Soon after I arrived, Mitt Romney  unveiled his vice-presidential candidate, which seemed to boost his popurality. Paul Ryan's oversized jackets and healthcare policies were welcomed, and his youth seemed to revitalise the party. On every TV screen you could hear the Republicans' war cry, lifted from the heady Ronald Reagan years: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

The Democrats and President Barack Obama have often responded haltingly, sometimes with conviction. They have argued that the motor industry has been saved, the poor have a better security net and young immigrants with no papers have a chance of staying in the US under a presidential amnesty. Also, as Senator John Kerry told the party faithful in Charlotte, North Carolina, it was his administration that killed the US's main foe, Osama Bin Laden.

Each day there is fresh material to bury or praise one candidate or another. More often than not, though, it is the Republicans who are on the back foot. The muckraking will no doubt continue right up until November. But, as James Wolcott writes in the September issue of Vanity Fair, Obama has so far emerged fairly unscathed: "They keep going in for the kill, but there's nothing for them to gut."

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