PHOENIX – In 2010, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was among those firmly in support of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant legislation SB 1070. Today, he belongs to a bipartisan coalition of some 40 community and business leaders calling for legalizing the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“If you look at the problem from a proper perspective, you can identify solutions that provide consensus,” said Montgomery in an interview with New America Media.
His comments came just hours after the release of the Real Arizona Coalition’s S.A.N.E Solution to Federal Immigration Reform, representing a broad array of interests, including the immigrant rights community, law enforcement and local agriculture.
The plan calls for, among other things, the creation of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants via a temporary visa granted those who pass a background check and agree to a fine. The coalition hopes the platform can ultimately serve as a catalyst for Congress to draft a solution to the country’s longstanding immigration impasse.
“Important conservative principles are reflected in this platform,” Montgomery continued, referring to provisions within the plan addressing border security. “Commitments to operational control (of the border) and continued enforcement are two hallmarks of what conservatives have believed all along to be necessary components of any federal immigration resolution.”
Other sections of the S.A.N.E. plan focus on reducing wait times for applications, increasing the number of work visas available based on market need and granting green cards to graduates from colleges or universities.
“It’s a recognition that for us to accomplish something we can’t just focus on one component at a time,” Montgomery explained. He said the changes would create legal paths for those seeking entrance into the country, while “eliminating the avenues” for those looking to enter unlawfully.
Not an Amnesty
While the legal details have yet to be worked out, under S.A.N.E those deemed eligible for temporary visas could be required to return to their country of birth if they want to apply for citizenship. Drafters say they have yet to reach full agreement on this point, though they note that those brought here as youth – commonly referred to as Dreamers – will be exempt.
Montgomery insisted that whatever the final decision, the aim is to ensure that citizenship will be attained in a lawful way.
He also rejected descriptions of the plan as a form of amnesty.
“Even if you sought to deport those present without lawful authority they have U.S. citizens for children and so you want to deport 50 million people, roughly 30 million children with them,” he said. “I don’t want to be living here when those 30 million citizens exercise their right to return and are ticked off.”
The Real Arizona Coalition came about in the aftermath of passage of SB 1070, which brought with it a severe economic downturn as tourists shunned the state while close to 100,000 immigrant families fled to other parts of the country.
“I don’t think our effort right now to achieve a federal immigration solution is necessarily predicated on [the fact] that Arizona did something wrong,” said Montgomery. “We felt an enforcement gap created by federal inaction and SB 1070 was one example of what Arizona tried to do.”
Bringing Conservatives on Board
Montgomery was elected in 2010 after his predecessor, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas resigned to run in an unsuccessful bid for Arizona Attorney General. Since then he has pursued a law enforcement policy similar to that of his predecessor, including prosecuting cases of identity theft involving those caught in sweeps of local businesses that hire undocumented workers.
“I’m in an enforcement position, [and] we’re still going to continue to do that. But there’s an overarching issue that needs to be resolved,” he said.
Montgomery insisted there is an opportunity for other conservatives to get on board with S.A.N.E, which he hopes carries with it ripple effects across the country.
Following the recent presidential race, in which Latino voters proved a key voting bloc in Obama’s victory, the tone of the immigration debate took a sharp turn, with conservatives in the lead.
Former President George W. Bush recently joined the ranks of GOP members calling for immigration reform. And late last month, soon-to-retire Republican Arizona senator Jon Kyl presented the ACHIEVE Act to the U.S. Senate, a bill that would grant permanent legal status to undocumented youth.
Montgomery said Arizona stands to benefit immediately from S.A.N.E’s guidelines.
“At the end of the day, if we address these particular issues at the federal level, I dare say we won’t see the same level of criminal activity associated with drug and human smuggling and cartels,” he said. “I would say we would have a greater sense of border security.”
S.A.N.E already has the endorsement of a number of high profile figures in Arizona, including Phoenix Democratic Mayor Greg Stanton, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Republican Senator Bob Worsley, who took over after SB 1070 architect Russell Pearce lost his seat in a recall.
“I think this is a unique moment in time, where we have a couple of years focused on enforcement only, and I think after the presidential election and poor showing of the Republican party with the Latino community, anyone considering our future as a party needs to know we need to have a more Latino friendly platform,” said Worsley.
Worsley is meeting with other Republicans to get the platform moving, including Republican Congressman Jeff Flake.
“This will be the next big thing that gets worked on,” said Worsley. “I think it will come very close to where we are, because this has been a lot of the different constituencies negotiating.”
Will Brewer Get on Board?
Arizona Republican governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law in 2010, a move most political observers said guaranteed her re-election.
Members of the Real Arizona Coalition said there was a representative from the governor’s office attending most of the meetings held to draft the platform over the past 8 months.
Brewer, who is currently out of state on official business, was not available for comment, said Matt Benson, a spokesperson for the governor.
She has made headlines nationally for issuing an executive order to ban licenses for youth that qualify for a reprieve from deportation under a program from the Department of Homeland Security.
And while the tone among conservatives has been shifting toward favoring some form of immigration reform, Brewer has received heavy criticism for staying to the right of this issue.
“What the governor is doing to address circumstances here in Arizona is not inconsistent or mutually exclusive to what we’re doing here today,” said Montgomery. “The governor needs to do what she’s doing on behalf of Arizona, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still take a look at what has to happen at a federal level.”
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