Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.


The twin issues of border security and illegal immigration exerted a powerful political force in Arizona for the first decade of this century.

Militia members patrolled the border, the Legislature passed an employer-sanctions law and Arizona voters banned providing some government services to illegal immigrants.

It all climaxed in April 2010, with the signing of SB 1070 by Gov. Jan Brewer. Thanks to the recession, illegal immigration had already begun to decline, and the issues’ power to motivate voters and bring in donations diminished thereafter, too.

But the border is suddenly back. The crisis involving Central American migrant children and families has allowed state politicians, especially Republicans, to pump some life back into the issue as 2014 campaigns build.

“This latest crisis has put it back front and center, not only in the minds of voters, but in their living rooms and on their computer screens,” Chad Willems, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio‘s campaign manager, told me Monday. “There’s this renewed sense of anger about our government failing to address this issue.”

The difference: This time, various new factors make it more complicated and a harder issue to take advantage of politically. There’s the fact that the new wave of migrants is Central American, not Mexican; that many are fleeing violence, not just pursuing opportunity; and most importantly, that thousands of them are minors.

“Now it’s returning, but it’s confusing,” pollster Earl de Berge of the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center told me. “It’s not a border security issue in the sense that it was four or five years ago. Now it’s a border issue involving children.”

That doesn’t mean politicians aren’t trying to use it.

Tom Horne, the attorney general embroiled in a difficult re-election campaign, sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security secretary demanding that the department “cease and desist” shipping detained border crossers from Texas to Arizona for detention here.

Doug Ducey, a leading candidate for governor, asked his political ally Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to look into filing child-abuse charges against federal officials for dropping off Central American families at Greyhound stations in Phoenix and Tucson.

Shelley Kais, a candidate for the Republican nomination in Congressional District 2, came up with a curious theory: The border crisis “was planned and is clearly an effort on the part of the president to dictate immigration policy by exploiting the humanitarian nature of Americans.”

While these are some of the more far-out efforts to exploit the issue, that doesn’t mean the crisis isn’t real. It’s just that it’s complicated.

For one, it’s not a border-security crisis like the one that gripped Arizona.

This time, Central Americans are turning themselves in to agents once they cross the Rio Grande. They’re barely testing our border security.

That makes some politicians’ instinctive response to border issues — calls to seal the border — a bit off-point. For example, Republican candidate for governor Christine Jones put out a statement Tuesday responding to President Obama‘s request for $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis by saying:

“For a fraction of what President Obama is proposing to spend to support the surge of illegal immigrants, we could cover the entire cost of my border security plan and finally secure Arizona’s southern border.”

Another complication: The fact that many of the Central Americans are minors makes it harder, under a 2008 federal law, to simply send them home. Rather, candidates are criticizing the president for creating the crisis and shipping detained migrants to Arizona.

It’s a sound enough position. The administration deserves blame for creating the appearance of an amnesty program for Central American children, helping trigger the northward flow. But it’s not exactly rousing.

“Americans and Arizonans are confused,” said de Berge, who travels every few months to Guatemala for business. “On the one hand there’s anger about illegal entry into the U.S. On the other hand, there’s concern about this humanitarian issue.”

For Democrats, speaking politically, the only silver lining to the crisis is that there is a stark humanitarian aspect to it that blunts the issue’s political power.

For Republicans, the bottom line is that the crisis re-opens a productive line of attack on the Obama administration and, by implication, all Democrats.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter