Coalition lashes out at Pearce
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 4, 2006

Amanda J. Crawford

A coalition of community leaders representing Japanese, Jewish, Latino and African-American groups came together Tuesday to denounce a Mesa lawmaker's reference last week to a controversial 1950s federal deportation program.

The comments by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, about the program, officially named "Operation Wetback," have set off an angry backlash from those who object to his use of a pejorative term and references to a program they say violated the civil rights of many Mexican-American U.S. citizens.

Bill Straus, director of the Arizona region of the Anti-Defamation League declared at the news conference, "We are all in this together. We are all human beings and references to any one of us in terms less than that is an injustice to every one of us." The comments were among the latest in a steady stream of criticism since Pearce's comments last week. State Democrats denounced his comments on Monday. On Tuesday, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon called on him to apologize.

In response, Pearce and his supporters have blasted critics, saying they took his comments out of context, went to an extreme in political correctness and tried to vilify him in order to bury his message.

The comments and the response have touched a raw nerve among Arizonans of diverse backgrounds, ideologies and political persuasions who are deeply divided over illegal immigration.

The backlash
At the Capitol news conference, the Rev. Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix said Pearce's "choice of language was insensitive, disrespectful, race-baiting as well as a half a century behind the times."

And Mario E. Diaz of the Arizona Latino Research Enterprise, a non-profit group that organized the news conference, described the pejorative term as "the most offensive, disgusting and hurtful word a Latino can be labeled."
He said Pearce, the GOP's leading voice in the state on immigration issues, has "lost all credibility and common decency."

The research group said it would ask all elected state and federal officials in Arizona and all candidates for those offices to sign a pledge supporting "vigorous and thoughtful debate" and opposing "the inflammatory and divisive language invoked by Russell Pearce."

Later on Tuesday at the annual Latino Institute luncheon, Gordon compared the 1954 deportation program to Japanese internment camps, separate bathrooms for Blacks and Whites, and asked, "What was Mr. Pearce thinking?"

'A hero'
But Pearce said again Tuesday that he will not apologize for his comments and is "still fuming" over the backlash. He called his critics "anti-American" and said they are taking a "cheap shot" that "offends me to my core." He stresses that he did not use the derisive term outside of his reference to the 1954 deportation program and points out that his daughter-in-law and grandchildren are Hispanic. He says he only referenced the program to prove a point: The federal government has executed a deportation program before.

He accused critics of lying not only about what he said but also rewriting history about the alleged abuses in the 1954 immigrant roundups.

"This is great spin. If they want to use me as a piņata, let them do it," he said. "I didn't say anything wrong. I didn't call a name. I used a historical reference. {ellipsis} You know who needs to apologize to America?
The people who ignore the damage to America (from illegal immigration)."

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, came to Pearce's defense. He said critics should "get a life" and defended Pearce's reference to the 1954 program and praised him for his work on immigration reform. Pearce is the leading force behind all four propositions on the November ballot aimed at combating illegal immigration.

"He should be held up as a hero, not vilified and castigated as a racist,"
Farnsworth said.

Other Republicans distanced themselves from Pearce's comments.

Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, for example, said he would not sign the Arizona Latino Research Enterprise's pledge, but he recalled living in Yuma in the 1950s and seeing the "green vans hunting for people, and people were afraid."

"You need to be sensitive to people when you are dealing with these issues,"
he said. "We have to secure the border. It is just not as simple as taking a broom and sweeping them out of the country."