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Arizonans want federal immigration reform. Why our senators have been failing for decades

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2024 - 12:08pm
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 7:10am

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Last week, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s attempt to pass a major bipartisan immigration measure failed in Congress after Republicans turned against it, spurred on by former President Donald Trump. 

But, this was not the first time an Arizona lawmaker has tried to do this. Think back to the early  2000s, when the late Sen. John McCain attempted bipartisan immigration reform with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, and then again in 2013, when he led the so-called Gang of Eight with former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. In the end, just like Sinema’s bill last week, it all failed. 

And, Chuck Coughlin says even though the reality of immigration today has shifted significantly, the fact that it is politicized has not.

Coughlin is the CEO of Highground and a longtime GOP consultant in Arizona. He worked for McCain, as well as Gov. Jan Brewer when she signed the controversial SB 1070. 

The Show spoke with him about the history of immigration reform attempts in Arizona politics and why McCain had pushed for reform nearly two decades ago. 

Chuck Coughlin
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Chuck Coughlin

Interview highlights

COUGHLIN: Well, Arizona's biggest trading partner is Mexico. We are the A-zone for all of these issues. I would argue that the Arizona electorate is the most mature electorate at digesting these problems and wanting solutions to these problems — which are not forthcoming. We've seen that throughout the history, but we've seen political leadership — because political leaders from Arizona, from John Mccain to, to Jeff Flake to [Jon] Kyl to delegation members, always were looking for opportunities to try and resolve this issue to try and work its way, because it was so important to the Arizona economy.

And so the relative strength of the economic issue dictates that you have some kind of legalized customs enforcement issues going on to get trade and commerce, which, of course, includes workforce, includes people. Goes back to the agricultural industry wanting to have people to be able to move in itinerant labor forces that could come and go. And driven by the Yuma market largely. I mean, the, you know, everybody knows iceberg lettuce. Yuma is the capital of the country for iceberg lettuce in the winter. And so you got to get that out of the ground. And so there was a a massive push by the business community to begin to try and resolve these issues, separate and apart from the humanitarian crisis that characterizes it today.

These bills and the attempts that people like John McCain and Jeff Flake made back in the day, they also failed. Do you remember what happened at the time, why those bills were never able to make it through?

COUGHLIN: Yeah, I think it mostly was the same things. It was a deep politicization, not just by Republicans, but by Democrats as well. And so it's really been a freak show of politics. And my belief is that lack of understanding about the politics of the issue has consistently contributed to those efforts, failures.

So back then, the idea was that the GOP needed to expand its base. They needed to appeal to Hispanic voters, this massively fast growing population in our country. Is that still the case today? Does that conversation still exist?

COUGHLIN: I'm not sure it is. I, and today's MAGA party, today's Republican party, I don't think sees it that way. I think they see that there is a contingent of Hispanic voters who are with them. They, they don't wanna see increased migration. There's people with businesses, small businesses. This is a hangover from the Clinton, you know, free-trade policy of abandoning American workforce and having jobs and everything go overseas. And though that working class, part of the population not feeling like they had any political representation.

And Trump found them and Trump has given voice to those people who, "Hey man. I'm here legally. I did that, you know. I've created my own opportunity here and we don't need to give anything away, and I have my small business, and I'm doing fine." That's a legitimate argument that a lot of Hispanic, older Hispanics make. So, you know, it's a really much more of a mosaic of a political landscape than people really understand. You know, we can all intellectualize the policy points. But these are things that are represented emotionally within the electorate, which is what has now driven the debate in my mind. It's emotion, it's politics, it's not economic policy, it's not what's good for the state.

There is very few people that are willing to stick their necks out as McCain did back in the day; Kennedy did back in the day,; the "Gang of Seven" did back in their day. And most recently as we saw Sen. Sinema and the Democrat and Republicans that tried to join that effort.

Kyrsten Sinema Arizona Chamber of Commerce keynote
Office of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
Kyrsten Sinema addresses the Arizona Chamber of Commerce on April 13, 2022.

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