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Arizona, Immigration, and LGBT Rights: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Arizona protestors

SOURCE: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Anthony Musa and Brianna Pantillione joined nearly 250 LGBT rights supporters who protested S.B. 1062 at the Arizona State Capitol.

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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) recently vetoed S.B. 1062, a controversial bill that would have given businesses greater license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people. Gov. Brewer’s veto came after a nationwide public outcry over the measure—and after four of the state’s largest business groups sent her a letter that expressed their concern over the potential harm it could cause to employers, tourism, job creation, and the overall economy.

Arizona is neither the first nor the only state to consider such legislation: Mississippi saw a similar bill pass unanimously in the state senate in January, and four other states are still considering similar measures that have not attracted similar levels of public outrage across the political spectrum. But S.B. 1062 struck a chord among Americans in part because of its strong parallels to an earlier debate. Just four years ago, Arizona made national news after it passed a tough anti-immigrant bill, S.B. 1070.

Does the veto of S.B. 1062 signal progress?

The past is prologue

In many ways, the debates over S.B. 1062 and S.B. 1070 mirror each other. Both bills sought to ostracize a portion of Arizona’s population—immigrants and LGBT people, respectively. Supporters of both bills sold them to the public as innocuous in an attempt to hide deeper ramifications. In 2010, S.B. 1070 sponsor and then-State Senate President Russell Pearce (R) and other supporters sold the bill as one that would force unauthorized immigrants to leave the state, allowing state and local police to check the legal status of anyone they believed was in Arizona illegally. But because it is impossible to tell if someone is undocumented just by looking at them—as impossible as it is to know if they pay their taxes—the bill exposed Arizona to accusations of racial profiling. Former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), for example, told reporters, without irony, that police could tell who the unauthorized were by the clothes and shoes they wore.

This year, supporters of S.B. 1062 referred to it as a law that defended “religious freedom”—without owning up to the fact that the so-called “freedom” gave businesses the ability to not serve anyone they thought was LGBT. While the language of the bill did not explicitly mention LGBT people, proponents argued that the law was necessary in response to lawsuits against businesses that refused to serve same-sex couples, and supporters made references to LGBT people when arguing for the law on the floor of the state house. For example, the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Steve Yarbrough (R-AZ), said he introduced S.B. 1062 in response to a New Mexico case in which a gay couple was permitted to sue a photographer who refused to take pictures of their wedding.

Both of these bills saw strong opposition from a wide range of civil rights groups. And while other parallels exist between the two debates, the fight over S.B. 1062 occurred in a landscape shaped by the earlier fight over immigration, which may have affected its outcome. Business leaders, such as those who wrote to Gov. Brewer to urge her to veto S.B. 1062, only had to look back on the $141 million of cancelled conferences in the state in the first year after S.B. 1070 passed to see the potential effects of the new legislation. When Arizona legislators attempted to pass even harsher immigration bills in 2011, including one that would have required hospitals to report on the legal status of patients, 60 business leaders published a letter that detailed the harm from the 2010 law and urged the legislature to reject the new laws; their opposition was a major reason the bills failed. That same year, the lead sponsor of S.B. 1070, State Senate President Pearce, lost his seat in a recall election.

Progress, but there is still work to be done

When faced with S.B. 1062 this year—a bill that led to conferences being cancelled and received similar business opposition—Gov. Brewer took a different tactic, issuing a veto that stated, “Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve.”

So has Arizona and the nation learned from the past?

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) perhaps put it best when he told The Huffington Post that “much damage has already been done” from the debate on S.B. 1062 and the fact that the legislature passed it, particularly because of “the negative national and international publicity that our state has already received—it sends a message that our state is not a warm, welcoming place.”

States still have a long way to go on both immigration and LGBT rights. For one thing, while the Supreme Court struck down the main parts of S.B. 1070 in 2012, Sheriff Joe Arpaio continues to intimidate Latinos in Arizona through a “pattern or practice of unlawful discriminatory police conduct directed at Latinos,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Other states continue to introduce harsh anti-immigrant bills as well: A Georgia law, for example, would withhold driver’s licenses from DREAMers who received legal status from deferred action. In regard to LGBT equality, more than a dozen states are considering Arizona-style religious-freedom legislation, and it is still legal for people to be fired for being LGBT in a majority of states, including Arizona.

Still, there are undoubtedly signs of progress. A number of states are distancing themselves from their religious-freedom bills in the wake of the outcry over Arizona’s law, and judges in Virginia and Texas have struck down those states’ anti-marriage-equality laws in the past few weeks. Also, the overwhelming trend of state action has moved away from anti-immigrant legislation toward more welcoming laws. Just last year, California and Connecticut passed TRUST Acts that limit cooperation with federal immigrant detainers, and Maryland is considering similar legislation; Washington state just passed a tuition-equity law; and more and more cities are creating welcoming programs to help integrate, rather than exclude, immigrants.

Without immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and without the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to ensure that no one can be fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, laws such as S.B. 1070 and S.B. 1062 still have the capacity to hurt immigrant and LGBT communities. But Gov. Brewer’s rejection of S.B. 1062 illustrates that the tide may be turning in a positive direction.

Laura E. Durso is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Angela Maria Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy at the Center. Philip E. Wolgin is Senior Policy Analyst for Immigration at the Center. 

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