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Russell Pearce, author of SB 1070, dead at 75

PEARCE OBIT 1947 - 2023.png
AZ State Senate/Lisa Sturgis, KAWC
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PHOENIX, Ariz. (CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES) - Russell Pearce, the sponsor of Arizona's 2010 comprehensive and controversial law about illegal immigration, died Thursday at his home at age 75.

The Mesa Republican gained international attention with his SB 1070, dubbed the Fair and Legal Employment Act, which was designed to give the state a role in identifying and detaining those not in this country legally.

That included giving local police the power to charge migrants with violating state laws for seeking work in Arizona without being in this country legally and failing to carry federally issued registration cards. It also would have allowed police to make warrantless arrests if there is "probable cause'' a person committed an office that makes them removable from the country under federal law.
Those provisions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as conflicting with federal law.

But the justices said there was nothing inherently illegal about what was known as the "papers please'' provision. It says if police have stopped someone for some legitimate reason, they must "reasonably attempt'' to determine that person's immigration status where there is "reasonable suspicion'' he or she is not legally present in the United States.

The high court sent the case back to a trial court to determine if that law can be applied legally.

And in a 2016 agreement, immigrant rights groups gave up on challenging that section in exchange for some state-issued informal -- and non-binding -- guidance on how police should enforce it.

But his sponsorship of that and other anti-immigrant legislation led to an effort in 2011 by voters in his Mesa legislative district to recall Pearce, by then the Senate president. The move was successful, resulting in the only such ouster of a state lawmaker from office in Arizona history.

That special election represented a blow to the more conservative wing of the Arizona Republican Party which had portrayed the recall as a liberal effort to take down the author of SB 1070. Pearce raised money from across the nation as conservatives rallied around the lawmaker.
It was a sharp turnaround for Pearce.

He and his measure were popular in his district when the law was approved in 2010.

But criticism grew in 2011 when he pushed a new round of anti-immigrant legislation that was so controversial that it could not muster a majority in the Senate.

The legislation also triggered a letter from the CEOs of some of Arizona's largest companies urging the legislature to put a hold on new immigration laws.

There were other factors.

Mesa city councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, who represented about half of Pearce's legislative district, said the defeat was no surprise. He said the district had become more politically diverse, especially among independents.

And Pearce's views on immigration also had caused a stir in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he was a member. That gave an edge in the recall election to Jerry Lewis, another member of the church.

SB 1070 was not Pearce's sole foray into the issue of illegal immigration.

In 2004 he was a supporter of Proposition 200. The measure, approved by voters, made proof of citizenship a legal requirement not only to vote but also to receive any public benefits.

But even that did not fully survive.

Just last year Arizona voters approved a measure partly repealing that initiative. It allows children who were brought to this country illegally, to pay the same tuition at state universities and community colleges as any other resident if they meet other conditions.

He also was the author of a 2006 ballot measure to have English declared the state's official language.

Pearce also was a staunch advocate of what he said are Second Amendment rights and ushered through Arizona's first law in 2010 allowing people to carry concealed weapons. Prior to that, all adults could be armed -- but only if the weapon were visible.

Prior to being in the legislature he was a deputy in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, including being the chief deputy under Joe Arpaio. Pearce said he was responsible for creation in 1993 of the "Tent City'' which ensured that the county would never run out of space to house inmates. But that was shut down in 2017 amid issues of cruel conditions especially during the summer heat.
In 1995 he became director of the Motor Vehicle Division of the state Department of Transportation.

Pearce was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 and served three two-year terms there before moving to the Senate in 2006 where he remained until the recall.