Commentary

Opinion: Scaring up votes in Arizona

Updated:

SAN DIEGO — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has figured out at least this much: Mexican drug dealers are, to average folks, much scarier than Mexican dishwashers.

So Brewer, who is running for election, has decided to make one the face of the other — all Mexicans being interchangeable, after all.

And so now, oddly enough, the immigration debate’s Willie Horton is a Mexican drug dealer.

The scare tactics started in April at the ceremony where Brewer signed into law Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a divisive and dishonest piece of legislation that turns local police into posses that go around hunting illegal immigrants based on “reasonable suspicion.” It promotes a form of state vigilantism where people decide that law enforcement isn’t doing its job and so they must take matters into their own hands. 

In signing the bill, Brewer talked about “border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration” and said Arizonans “cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels” or “stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.” Nor could they, she said, “delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north.”

I know. Speechifying like that makes you want to grab your Winchester.

Later, Brewer doubled down on the drug demagoguery — The Mexican Connection, if you will — during a debate between Republican gubernatorial candidates. She claimed that most illegal immigrants act as drug mules for Mexican cartels. When a reporter asked her to provide the basis of the claim, she really went for broke.

"We all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules,” Brewer told the reporter. “They're coming across our borders in huge numbers. The drug cartels have taken control of the immigration... They're breaking the law when they are trespassing and they're criminals when they pack the marijuana and the drugs on their backs.”

When pressed, Brewer acknowledged that many illegal immigrants do come to the United States to look for work but insisted that eventually they “are accosted and they become subjects of the drug cartels.”

Quick. Someone take that shovel out of her hands before she digs herself in any deeper.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Brewer is wrong about the drug comments and that he doesn’t believe most illegal immigrants moonlight as drug mules for the cartels.

Ditto for T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council. That is the labor union representing nearly 20,000 border patrol agents, which you’d think would know a thing or two about who is coming across the border and what they’re bringing with them. Bonner told CNN that Brewer's claims are “clearly not the case” and “don't comport with reality.”

I’ll second that. In my many conversations with border patrol agents and supervisors over the last 15 years, I have been thoroughly disabused of any notion that drug smugglers dabble in immigrant smuggling and vice versa. Everyone stays in their lane in the border businesses, so no one loses his head.

It’s true that some illegal immigrants, when discovered, have bags of marijuana or cocaine strapped to their bodies. But “some” is not “most.” Besides, as Bonner pointed out, just because many of these immigrants try to dodge responsibility by claiming they were forced to bring in the drugs by cartels doesn’t make it so. Cartels move large quantities of contraband and they don’t fret over nickels and dimes.

But what do we know? These are just facts and Brewer has no use for those — especially not in the middle of a political campaign.

Back in April, during the signing ceremony for SB1070, Brewer tried to assuage concerns by critics who worried about how the law would be implemented. “I will not tolerate racial discrimination or racial profiling in Arizona,” she said.

Now Brewer is doing a little profiling herself by painting every illegal immigrant in the state as a recovering drug mule for dangerous cartels.

By mixing the apples of the Mexican drug war with the oranges of the public relations war against illegal immigrants being waged by Republican politicians, Brewer hopes to scare up votes and increase public support for every heartless and harebrained idea that she and her GOP colleagues can come up with to make life in Arizona inhospitable for illegal immigrants.

That’s only fair. After all, it’s illegal immigrants who over the last 15 years of building homes, tending gardens, serving food, cleaning homes, cooking meals and tending children helped to make the Grand Canyon State more hospitable for everyone else.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a regular commentator for National Public Radio, and a weekly contributor to CNN.com.