Arizona in Mexican Standoff with Los Angeles and Other U.S. Cities

Arizona flag protest
Arizona flag protest

In the month since it enacted a controversial law intended to reduce illegal immigration, Arizona has faced a steady stream of attacks from opponents ranging from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mexican-American filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. The war of words quickly became a war of wallets as cities across the country voted to boycott the Grand Canyon state. On Wednesday, an Arizona official struck back, threatening to match Los Angeles' boycott with one of his own.

In an open letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Arizona corporation commissioner Gary Pierce points out that power plants in his state supply roughly 25% of the electricity that Los Angeles consumes. "If an economic boycott is truly what you desire, I will be happy to encourage Arizona utilities to renegotiate your power agreements so Los Angeles no longer receives any power from Arizona-based generation," he threatens in the letter. In a subsequent interview, Pierce expanded: "Los Angeles...ought to be cognizant that, you can't call a boycott on the candy store and then decide to go in and pick and choose candy you really do want."

Pierce Backs Down

As it turns out, Pierce's threat was a bluff. Many of Arizona's electric plants, including the Palo Verde nuclear-power facility, are actually owned by California utilities. And when confronted with this information, the commissioner quickly backpedaled. "It is mischaracterization to say we have any power here other than to call their hypocrisy into question," he told reporters. "I just think [Los Angeles' boycott] is an impractical solution and not very well thought out. Really guys, let's cool it and move on."

Still, Pierce's threat highlights an increasingly serious economic problem for Arizona. In what amounts to political sanctions, several cities -- including Seattle, San Diego, Boston, Austin and San Francisco -- have passed resolutions to cut official travel to the state and slash contracts with Arizona-based businesses. Phoenix is already anticipating a 5-year loss of $90 million in tourism revenues and two of the state's other major cities, Tucson and Flagstaff, have decided to sue over the law.

The law, called Senate Bill 1070, is having a devastating effect on Arizona's reputation, especially coming on top of another law, House Bill 2281, which blocks ethnic studies programs in state schools. And the heated discussion has expanded beyond city and state officials.

Angry Rhetoric Grows

At a conference on human rights last week, U.S. State Department official Michael Posner mentioned the immigration law in his remarks to a Chinese delegation, which many commentators for taken as a comparison to human-rights abuses in China. Posner, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, insists that his comments were only meant to highlight the continuing difficulties of inclusion and discrimination in a democratic society. But that hasn't stopped Fox News and Bill O'Reilly from taking aim at him.

Arizona senators John McCain and John Kyl also have jumped on the issue, demanding that Posner formally apologize for his comments. It's not surprising that McCain has been so outspoken in his criticism of the assistant secretary: Arizona's move has put the senator in an untenable position. Criticized by the conservative wing of the Republican party, McCain is now caught between the federal government -- which is constitutionally responsible for handling immigration -- and a state whose policies are becoming increasingly repugnant to the rest of the country.

McCain is facing a serious challenge in August's Arizona Republican primary. He has pushed his immigration bona fides with his "Complete the Danged Fence" ads, which endorse a federal solution to the immigration problem. But if he really wants to maintain support in his state, he needs to hit a nice big target that will impress the folks back home. Luckily for him, Posner fits the bill.