Before he was recalled in 2011, Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce was arguably the most powerful man in Arizona politics. Elected in 2000 to represent Mesa, Pearce was known primarily for his efforts aimed at undocumented immigrants, most notably Senate Bill 1070. Among other things, SB 1070 required immigrants to carry special documentation; made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work; and required local law enforcement officers to question people they suspected were in the country illegally.
S.B. 1070 became law in 2010, although the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down most of its provisions. In Arizona, and especially Phoenix, the law exacerbated cultural tensions and led to protests and boycotts. Tourists canceled vacations, national organizations moved their conferences elsewhere, and a political backlash eventually led to a recall effort against Pearce.
In 2011, Pearce was recalled from the state Senate. He lost the recall election to a fellow Republican who preached a more understanding approach to undocumented immigrants. Pearce also lost the state Senate primary in 2012. He was still a top official with the state GOP until earlier this year, when he resigned because of comments he made implying that women on social services should be sterilized. He now hosts a conservative radio talk show.
National Journal recently spoke with Pearce about S.B. 1070 and its impact on Phoenix's future.
What was the goal of S.B. 1070?
To enforce the law. I know it's a novel idea, that to enforce the law might be the right thing to do. You can't continue to ignore the damage to America. As you become a lawless and Godless nation, it destroys the very Republic that our founders put into place. And the cost of this illegal-alien invasion, in terms of crime, social cost, taxpayer costs—you think somebody would think that that's a significant issue. They're illegal. Illegal is not a race, it's a crime.
How did S.B. 1070 aim to solve the illegal immigration problem?
Again, by enforcing the law. When do we worry about the American jobs that are lost and taken by illegal aliens? When do we worry about the cost of billions of dollars to the taxpayer? When do we worry about the crime? And there is a definite correlation between violent crime and illegal-alien activity.
When S.B. 1070 was passed, there were several polls done, and 73 percent of Americans supported it. The majority of Americans consistently support enforcement—not amnesty, not open borders. They demand a secure border. And yet we don't get it, do we?
Why do you use the word "invasion" to describe illegal immigration?
It's every day it goes on. If it's not an invasion, then what is it then? If you don't like my term, then describe what it is to me. Our own government put up signs south of Interstate 8 [a major highway in Arizona] telling Americans to stay out—too dangerous, illegal aliens. And that's 100 miles from the border. I use the term very appropriately. It's not a rock-throwing issue. It's a defined term that has meaning to it.
What did people misunderstand about S.B. 1070?
I'm going to be very bold here: It was deceit and intentional misinformation given by the mainstream media. Every article they wrote was, "SB 1070, Arizona's controversial law." Controversial? Enforcing the law is controversial? Protecting jobs for Americans is controversial? Protecting the taxpayer from billions of dollars to educate, medicate, and incarcerate is controversial?
The politics in the district you represented is more moderate and conciliatory. Why do you think voters chose to make that switch?
Because, again, the media every day played a part in criticising enforcement and in criticizing me in general. It was simply character-assassination. I understand that, I'm a big boy. But you tell me what I've done that hasn't had major support? Prop 100—passed by 78 percent. [Proposition 100 denied bond to undocumented immigrants. It was later ruled unconstitutional.] Prop 200—passed by almost 60 percent. [Proposition 200 partly required proof of citizenship to vote in state and federal elections. Portions of it were also struck down.] Employer sanctions—overwhelmingly supported; S.B. 1070—supported by over 73 percent.
Tell me what I've done that America doesn't support? The problem is that the Left has gone after me hard because I've been successful, and because America loves what we're doing. I have plaques sent to me from other states; I have letters sent to me, thousands of them from all over the United States, thanking Arizona and me for standing up.
Ultimately, the citizens in your district voted against you. What caused that shift?
First of all, in the recall, the Democrats were very careful to get a liberal Republican with no record to run against me. They kept all the Democrats out of the race purposefully. So with the liberal Republicans and the Democrats, they were able to be very successful. And to be fair, you have to applaud how clever they were. It was disappointing. It was very hurtful. I have never done anything but support this Republic. I have made it very clear that since I was a baby I've been a patriot and I believe in the rule of law. I've never done anything illegal, immoral, or unethical in my position. I'm an unapologetic conservative, and unapologetic American.
A lot of activists saw the law as discriminatory because it asked officers to determine who might be undocumented.
I have to laugh at the ignorance of those comments. I put in there, you cannot base it on race or ethnicity, and that you must have a lawful legal stop. Then, only if you have reason to believe that they're in the country illegally, can you pursue it. And most of the time, that's a 30-second phone call to [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].
As a former law-enforcement officer, how would you determine someone is in the country illegally?
It's pretty simple—no state-issued ID, does not communicate in English. Pretty obvious things that would cause you to ask questions. Arizona law requires you to be a legal resident—not a citizen—to get a driver's license or state-issued ID. So if you're driving a car and you don't have that, there's usually a reason.
We put a training together for law enforcement—which they didn't need—just to appease the liberal media. All I'm asking people to do is not ignore the obvious.
How do you envision the Phoenix area 20, 30 years from now?
I'm worried about the future of America. This is an American crisis, not just an Arizona crisis. Over 50 percent of the illegal entry in America comes through Arizona. But unlike Las Vegas, what goes on in Arizona does not stay in Arizona. We are the gateway to the rest of America for illegal activity. These are folks who use social services at an inordinate percentage. They take jobs from Americans. And then the crime, the gangs, the violence.
What did you learn from the way SB 1070 was received, the recall, and later losing the following two elections?
It just codifies my belief that the media has no respect for the law or the citizens who are injured by those who break our laws. It hasn't changed any of my firm conviction in the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the rule of law. But I understand how the media can manipulate the facts. Again, it can be very discouraging at times. It's always a very small minority who keeps the candle of liberty lit, and so we must stay vigilant.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.