Fortress Arizona?

How the border state’s anti-immigration movement packed up and called it quits.

Recalled Republican Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce talks with reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court after attending oral arguements in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council et al. March 18, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Former Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court in March.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

PHOENIX—Russell Pearce notices me noticing the license plate on his truck: ARZ1070. It’s three years to the day since the former state senator presided over the passage of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act—SB 1070—the law that required noncitizens to carry their registration at all times and empowered police to check the citizenship status of anyone they made “lawful contact” with.

“You’d think it’s a specialty plate,” says Pearce, as we walk into the suburban Denny’s where he likes to meet with Republican legislators. “I used to be the director of motor vehicles. We passed the bill, and I called up and said, ‘I’ll pay for a plate that says SB 1070 if I need to, but do you have one ready to go?’ They call me back, and they say: ‘You won’t believe this, but ARZ1070 is on top of the pile about to go out. I can pull it for you.’ I say, ‘Please!’ ”

Looking back, the passage of SB 1070 was the peak of Pearce’s career. Everything else, like the successful 2004 voter ID ballot initiative, led up to SB 1070; everything since has been a letdown. In November 2011, Pearce became the first Arizona senator to lose a recall election. In 2012, he tried and failed to win a new seat. He still works with Republicans—he’ll strategize with them later at a meeting of the state “liberty caucus”—but he “probably won’t run again.”

Immigration reformers won’t miss him. In Arizona, they describe Pearce’s loss as the moment “the fever” broke.

“He was one that every reporter would go to,” says U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake. “And they usually didn’t have to, because he’d usually be in front of a microphone somewhere. There were a lot of people who listened to him on this. Not having him at the tip of newscasts, criticizing, or organizing events and press conferences—it just makes for a different environment.”

A year after the recall, when he was making his first run for the U.S. Senate, Flake nearly lost. Republicans lost supermajorities in the Arizona legislature (they still run both houses), and Democrats won five of the state’s nine redistricted U.S. House seats.

“Almost everyone believed that Romney was not only going to win, but win big, up until the day of the election,” says Clint Bolick, the libertarian attorney who now directs litigation at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix and who co-authored Jeb Bush’s new book about immigration reform. “My wife and other Tea Party types, they were telling me: ‘You’ve got to stop reading the New York Times. They’re going to be wrong.’ Losing forced people into some serious soul-searching. I know some Tea Party folks are rethinking the issue now, and that conversation simply never happened before.”

Pearce knows all about that. “In 2007, the last time they had a bill in Congress, you had a backstop,” he says, working his way through his Grand Slam breakfast. “I think there’ll be a mass exodus from the Republican Party. It may be the impetus that creates a third party. And I may lead that drive to create an American Independent Party.”

Who would join him? Many of the activists who made their names in the roughest stretch of the immigration wars, from the failure of the 2006 reform bill in Congress to the passage of SB 1070, have disappeared from the scene. Michelle Dallacroce, whose work with Mothers Against Illegal Aliens made her a cable news regular for years, basically packed it up in 2008. Chris Simcox, who led the Minuteman Project to prominence from a newspaper office in Tombstone, Ariz., grew absorbed in a brutal legal battle against his wife at the same time three Minutemen went on trial for a robbery that devolved into a triple murder.

The media’s paying less attention now, and the hosts who could be counted on to shower the anti-immigration crowd with coverage have either lost their perches (Lou Dobbs) or moved on (Bill O’Reilly). Talk radio made celebrities out of the restrictionists in the 1990s and 2000s; the Minuteman Project’s Jim Gilchrist famously first heard his calling when he caught Simcox being interviewed by a right-wing California talker. But driving around the Phoenix suburbs, the conservative talk radio that comes in clearest is Salem Radio’s lineup—hosts like Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt, who want Republicans to sign on to reform and win some elections.

“We have the same people and activists with us this time, to some extent,” says Sean McCaffrey, who was executive director of the Arizona GOP during the 2007 immigration fight and now helps run Pearce’s Ban Amnesty Now. “In 2007, we didn’t just jam the phone lines in Congress. On two occasions, activists basically shut down their email accounts.”

Why does the movement seem weaker now? “I mean, think of it like a Rocky movie,” says McCaffrey. “You see Rocky, and you’re just as excited about Rocky II. You see Rocky III, and you’re still excited. You see Rocky IV, and, well, it’s patriotic, but it’s a letdown. Rocky V comes around, and you think, ‘Do I care about this anymore?’ We’d won so many times, in 2004 and 2006 and 2007 and 2010, that maybe fatigue set in. And we didn’t expect the Marco Rubios to turn on us.”

Reality turned on them, too. Illegal border crossings have slowed since the great backlash of the Bush era. Restrictionists credit the sagging American economy and the successes of their own laws. “Some illegals have left because the economy’s so bad,” says state Rep. John Kavanagh, who co-sponsored SB 1070 in the House. “When the jobs come back in a few years, do they really think we’ll have the same level of crossing? No, we’ll have a whole new wave.”

Kavanagh was a Port Authority cop in New York City before he took his pension and moved to Arizona in the 1990s. He keeps umbrellas in his office as decorations—there’s no reason to use them in the hot, comfortable sprawl of Maricopa County. If life’s more pleasant here, there’s no kindling for a backlash. “The wind left the sails of the anti-immigration movement when many of the additional measures we were promoting were put on hold by courts and when we won on SB 1070,” says Kavanagh. “That was when the momentum slowed; we discovered that federal courts would prevent us from doing more. The recall of Russell Pearce was a tragedy, and it hurt morale, but that was it.”

It did something else: It revealed a new sophistication among pro-legalization activists and a new coalition for reform. In 2007, coverage of legalization rallies focused on protesters who waved Mexican flags and spoke Spanish. It fed right into the fear that the movement’s goal was a lawless reconquista of the Southwest. I meet up with Ron Ludders and Bob Thomas, conservative strategists who’ve worked for Pearce before, and they insist that the legalization supporters’ tone enabled the defeat of the last immigration bill and the passage of SB 1070.

“It said that these people weren’t like the Hispanics we knew before,” says Thomas. “We lived side by side with each other. We lived north of I-10. Little Mexico was south of I-10. There were good people there. They were quiet, they were good, they were respected. But in 2007, there was a movement here in Arizona where Latinos marched in the streets.”

“They put the American flag on the ground and started dancing on it,” says Ludders.

“Urinating on the flag,” says Thomas. “The media was watching all of this; it was basically their coming-out party.”

The restrictionists agree: Pro-legalization groups are more sophisticated now. They’ve got allies in the churches who share a problem with Republicans: They need more recruits. Some Mormon donors eventually turned on Pearce (who’s Mormon himself) and used the 2011 recall to remove an impediment to their Hispanic outreach.

Back at Denny’s, Pearce finishes defending his record and the success of SB 1070—crime’s down 15 percent in the county!—and walks me outside. He grabs his keys with a hand missing half of one finger; it was shot off when he was still a cop and he blocked a bullet that could have killed him. Before he climbs into the ARZ1070 truck, he wonders one more time where all the restrictionists have gone.

“We had huge rallies down at the capitol,” says Pearce. “The media was down here in hordes. We don’t have that now, and I don’t understand it. Maybe the media’s convinced us that we need to do something on immigration. But it isn’t true.”