Rally outside Capitol protests 'immigrant bashing'

Matthew Benson and John Faherty The Arizona Republic Jan. 10, 2006 12:00 AM

It was in a side room adjacent to the Capitol's House chambers where the voices mixed.

From there, one could hear Gov. Janet Napolitano delivering her plans for heightened border enforcement to a room of lawmakers and dignitaries, as well as the din from thousands of immigrant rights demonstrators outside on the Capitol Mall banging drums and shouting "Si se puede!" ("Yes we can!") in unison.

Maybe it was fitting. Because on this day, the first day of the legislative session, illegal immigration took center stage.

And border reform was on both groups' minds.

A crowd estimated by authorities at about 4,000 rallied outside the Capitol, carrying signs and chanting for an end to what one speaker termed "immigrant bashing."

It was a well-organized group, with the chanting mass moving to the doorway as Napolitano's State of the State address let out, and far larger than your standard Capitol rally.

They made themselves heard and made sure of it.

"The politicians will hear this. They have to listen. There are so many of us," Phoenix resident Jorge Mendez said. "If they refuse to listen, they are making a big mistake."

Phoenix resident Nadia Meza, 30, noted that protesters "don't want to be illegal, either," and called for a guest-worker program to allow more immigrants to reach this country through legal channels.

"That's what we want: freedom," she said, "so we don't have to be hiding every time we go to work."

Some protesters pushed children in strollers. Others squinted into the afternoon sun, standing together in unity against a border-control movement that some believe has become little more than immigrant scapegoating.

"We're not criminals. We're hard workers," said Ricardo Lopez, 36. The Phoenix resident carried his 5-year-old son in his arms.

Inside the House chambers, meanwhile, illegal immigration also was the hot topic.

But Napolitano, a Democrat on the cusp of a re-election bid, sounded more like a Republican as she called for expanded deployment of the Arizona National Guard at the border and a crackdown on businesses that knowing- ly hire undocumented workers.

She backed her plan with a call for $100 million in state funds, including additional law enforcement resources for communities hard-hit by illegal immigration. The state also will seek federal reimbursement for Arizona's costs related to holding up what Napolitano called "a broken system."

"We will step up where the federal government has let us down and impose the rule of law at the border," she said.

Republicans have been critical of the Democratic governor in past years for blocking what they call more-stringent border security. But the issue has reached something of a head in the past year with Arizona's portion of the 1,951-mile Southwestern border now considered the most porous.

More than half of the 1.2 million arrests the Border Patrol made last year were in Arizona, and Napolitano declared a state of emergency in August.

On Monday, Republicans were both tentatively supportive and bemused by Napolitano's plan. And most noted that her outline, right down to the plan's cost, bears more than a passing resemblance to a proposal Republicans unveiled last week.

House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, called himself "amazed" by the governor's border talk. Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, attributed Napolitano's shift to political pressure.

"I'm glad she can read polls because it sounds like she's on our side now," said Pearce, a longtime opponent of illegal immigration. "She's taken some good plays out of the Republican handbook. I'm just really hoping and praying she's sincere.

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