Feathered Bastard

Russell Pearce in a Pantsuit? Susana Martinez's Much More Than That

You may have read of New Mexico's newly-elected Republican Governor Susana Martinez's executive order rescinding what she's referred to as that state's "sanctuary status," and instructing state police to inquire into the immigration status of "criminal suspects" and report that info to the feds.

Some have characterized this as New Mexico's version of Senate Bill 1070. It's not quite that bad.

Arizona's breathing-while-brown law is far broader, covering all local and state law enforcement, instructing LEOs to determine immigration status during all lawful stops where reasonable suspicion exists that someone is in the country illegally.

Martinez's executive order covers only state law enforcement agencies, and it grants an exception for "crime victims, witnesses, or others who call or approach law enforcement seeking assistance or reporting a crime."

SB 1070 has no such provision, though for the most part, the law is still enjoined, and remains in limbo as we await the Ninth Circuit's ruling on the district court's decision.

But the executive order is still of great interest, as much for the person who signed it as anything else: i.e.; the first Latina Governor in United States history.

That's right, Martinez, who was elected with 54 percent of the total vote last November -- and about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote -- is a smart, tough former district attorney who reportedly grew up near the border and whose grandparents (both sets) came from Mexico.

She speaks fluent Spanish, yet wants New Mexico to stop issuing drivers licenses to the undocumented. She's lukewarm on the DREAM Act, and says it should be part of a comprehensive package, with securing the border coming first.

Keep in mind, she's the Governor of New Mexico, not Arizona. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Quick Facts, 45.6 percent of New Mexico's population is of Hispanic or Latino origin. In Arizona, the Latino/Hispanic population is around 30 percent.

Preceding Martinez in the governor's chair was Bill Richardson, a moderate to lefty, pro-business Dem. Dems have a majority in the New Mexico legislature. The state went blue for Obama in 2008. Red for Bush in 2004. Blue for Gore in 2000. And blue for Clinton in 1996 and 1992.

Obviously, the political dynamic is different in our neighbor to the east than here in Sand Land. Anti-immigrant sentiment is higher here, and uglier. It has a prejudicial tone born of a brown-white divide that's been decades in the making.

Also, keep in mind Newsweek's observations concerning New Mexico and Martinez:

"Latinos in New Mexico also have a distinct profile," Newsweek reported"Only 16 percent of them are foreign born, and many of the remainder come from families who have lived in the state for centuries. For them, `immigration, in terms of their personal relationship to it, is pretty far removed,' says Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico. That helps explain why gubernatorial candidate Martinez has suffered little fallout for her get-tough-on-the-border ads and her opposition to granting driver's licenses to undocumented people."

I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Martinez as some sort of Clarence Thomas for Hispanics. She has genuine communication skills, and easily outperforms 
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, and state Senate President Russell Pearce for that matter.

As a former prosecutor, she sometimes comes across as a Latina Nancy Grace, with her zeal for the death penalty and punishing wrongdoers. She's also pro-life, and believes parents should be informed if their minor children seek abortions.

Over the last several years, Republicans have alienated Latinos by copping the nativist line, and Democrats have angered Latinos by taking their votes for granted and doing little in return to earn same.

This is why politicians such as Martinez -- and to a lesser extent, Republicans like Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida -- present a serious challenge to Democrats. 

Essentially, Democratic inaction on comprehensive immigration reform has helped neutralize it as an issue. That is to say, all Dems have been able to do is talk a good game, ceding the argument and all influence to the nativist right. 

Into this breach leaps the GOP's Latino and Latina warriors. If Democrats continue to treat immigration reform as political poison, why shouldn't Hispanics vote for, and be drawn to, trend-setters and barrier-brakers on the right?

The consensus in this country, for the moment, like it or not, is anti-immigrant. And until a new political reality upends that paradigm, pro-immigrant forces will be fighting a rearguard action. 

In this scenario, a Governor Martinez is far more dangerous to the pro-immigrant cause than Russell Pearce and all his minions combined.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons