Son's shooting drives Rep. Pearce's efforts

February 7, 2005

Richard Ruelas

His bill had passed the committee, but Rep. Russell Pearce wasn't entirely happy. After the hearing, Pearce, who still has the swagger of his law enforcement days, buttonholed a fellow Republican who voted against the measure and tried to convince him it was a good idea. Across the room, another representative, Ray Barnes, said to no one in particular, "You can tell whether it's discussing or haggling by the volume of the voice. That's haggling."

Pearce has his name attached to more than 100 pieces of legislation this session, but the ones that inspire the most passion are those that deal, at least tangentially, with illegal immigration.

For years, Pearce has been a staunch anti-illegal immigration advocate. But this year, he's got a little more motivation, although he doesn't discuss it during legislative testimony, or in interviews with reporters or on his numerous radio or television appearances. He didn't even bring it up until I specifically asked him about it.

It's almost as if Pearce does not want to politicize the fact that his son, a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputy, was shot on duty by a Mexican man who was in this country illegally.

"(That) really verified what I'm trying to do down here," Pearce said, as we spoke in the empty House of Representatives hearing room, following his apparently futile haggling with Rep. Steve Yarbrough.

It was an eerie confluence of circumstance. This high-profile foe of illegal immigration having his son shot by an "illegal," as he calls them.

"You couldn't have scripted it any better," he said.

"And the way I found out," he continued.

Pearce was in Washington, D.C., giving a speech about illegal immigration at the Brookings Institution when he got the message to call home. His wife, he knew, "wouldn't be calling if it wasn't important. It had to do with the children." Pearce excused himself from the podium and found a phone.

Sean Pearce, an 11-year veteran, was serving a search warrant Dec. 16 at a Mesa trailer home. A man hiding behind a Christmas tree fired when Pearce entered the room. The Sheriff's Office says Jorge Luis Guerra Vargas, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant, was the shooter.

"It must be kept in perspective," Pearce said. "I've tried to avoid being unfair about this whole thing."

For someone that his numerous critics have pegged as a radical extremist, Pearce smiles an awful lot. He was born in Mesa, one of 13 kids, but somehow acquired that easygoing Midwestern drawl that an airline pilot has when he tells you to fasten your seatbelt.

But he gets intense talking about immigration. His brown eyes squint to a point. His broad shoulders tighten. I asked him about the bill that was before the committee, one that, on its face, is designed to prevent judicial activism. Efforts to stop judges from legislating from the bench have sprung up in other states as well, most notably over the issue of same-sex marriage. But that's not Pearce's concern. He mentioned a court decision that might force the state to spend more on bilingual education. "We voted out bilingual education. It smacks in the face of the intention of the voters."

Pearce stood leaning on the hearing table, his hands palm down. His right hand spoke of another intense time in his life.

The ring finger on that hand ends at the first knuckle. The rest was shot off in Guadalupe in 1977 during a struggle between Pearce, then a sheriff's deputy, and three Latino teenagers.

Pearce had taken beer away from the youths, when one of them unleashed a Doberman pinscher on him. Pearce repelled that attack with a bonk from his flashlight. Then, as he tried to arrest the teen that owned the dog, the other two attacked him, with one grabbing his gun. After realizing his finger was missing, Pearce got in his car and chased after the fleeing suspects.

Pearce, though, said that shooting did not make him anti-Latino or anti-Mexican. "Those were bad guys," he said. If anything, it made him more passionate about locking up criminals and gang members, no matter the race.

Pearce rose through the ranks of the Sheriff's Office and was then appointed to head the Governor's Office of Highway Safety and the state's Motor Vehicle Division. While at the MVD, he pushed a bill that required proof of citizenship to get a driver's license. He was fired from that post in 1999 after an investigation found he and two others tampered with the driving record of a drunken-driving suspect so she could avoid having her license suspended. But voters in Mesa elected him to the Legislature the next year.

Since then, he has introduced a flurry of legislation that could charitably be called hostile to undocumented immigrants living in Arizona. He was one of the most vocal supporters of Protect Arizona Now, the ballot measure that aimed to scrub undocumented immigrants off the welfare and voter rolls.

Pearce said he couldn't pinpoint when he became staunchly against illegal immigration. But he said his missing finger has nothing to do with it and he is not anti-Mexican.

His daughter is dating a Mexican fellow and one of his friends is Mexican. Although, Pearce said, he's not very close with "Gus," the Mexican man he met while working construction when they were both teenagers.

"He couldn't speak English, so me and the other workers made fun of him," he said.

"But back then, they would come to work and go home. Now, they come and stay, plus they don't assimilate."

Pearce said it's impossible to make generalizations about groups of people, "but if you're illegal, you're illegal."

"You certainly have some good people," Pearce said. But he went on to catalogue a list of ills: "The acts of violence, the impacts to the welfare system, the impacts to the health care system. . . . It's what's destroying America."

Pearce's secretary entered the hearing room. He had a committee to chair, and it was ready to start. Pearce gathered up his documents and excused himself. He is one of the leaders of the statehouse and his time this session is more in demand. Since his son's shooting, so are the demands on himself.

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or