AP Photo/Scott Sady
Tuesday, April 27, 2010 | 2 a.m.
The three Republican candidates for governor threatened to rouse the Hispanic electorate last week during a televised debate, when Brian Sandoval and Mike Montandon endorsed an Arizona law that critics say could lead to widespread racial profiling of Hispanics.
A third candidate, Gov. Jim Gibbons, endorsed racial profiling.
The Arizona law, which was signed last week by Gov. Jan Brewer, compels local and state law enforcement to question the identity and immigration status of people if there is reason to believe they are not here legally. Those who cannot produce evidence of legal status could face six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Proponents of the law say its deterrent effect would curtail the number of immigrants here illegally.
A 2009 Pew Hispanic Center study put Arizona’s illegal immigrant population at 500,000 and Nevada’s at 230,000.
The law forbids using race, ethnicity or national origin as the only criteria for suspicion that someone is here illegally, but critics say it will be impossible to implement without widespread racial profiling.
Maggie McLatchie of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the law “explicitly allows for race to be a factor to consider when police stop someone.”
“We do not think this is a good idea for Nevada. It turns a fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head,” she said. “You need to carry papers on you at all times. It’s un-American.”
Montandon, former North Las Vegas mayor, and Sandoval, a former federal judge and Nevada attorney general, endorsed the Arizona measure.
Gov. Jim Gibbons didn’t answer the question directly, but said the following: “Racial profiling should be for terrorism. If you look like and act like a terrorist, if you’re coming across as a bad person, you’re going to do harm to our citizens, whether it’s deal drugs, commit crime or commit a terrorist act. Absolutely we ought to profile everybody that looks like a terrorist. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Gibbons’ apparent belief that terrorists look a certain way has been belied by recent American history when attacks have been launched by whites such as Timothy McVeigh, a Nigerian in the case of the Christmas bomber arrested in Detroit, as well as those of Middle Eastern descent on 9/11.
Gibbons then added: “But if they want to have a racial profile of Irishmen, then I’m going to question that.” It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the long history of Irish terrorism, or whether he was saying whites should not face the same scrutiny as racial and ethnic minorities.
Although the crowd at the televised Reno debate loved the responses — mere mention of the Arizona law got some of the loudest applause of the night — the immigration portion of the debate could turn out to be politically perilous for the party.
Political analysts had predicted Democrats would struggle to motivate Hispanics to vote after they failed to deliver on immigration reform following the election of President Barack Obama.
Even though the jury is out on whether Congress will pass an immigration bill in coming months, the Arizona law — and rhetoric like that from Gibbons — could provide an opening for Democrats to energize Hispanic voters this November. And although an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration will appeal to the Republican base, that group was already motivated by anger over the new health care law and bank and auto company bailouts.
“They sprinted to the right. There’s no mistaking that,” UNLV political scientist Dave Damore said of the GOP candidates for governor. “And that is not a recipe for success in a swing state.”
Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist, said being tough on illegal immigration is the right position to take in the Republican primary, and to a lesser extent, in the general election. But he said there’s a downside.
“If you say ‘build a wall and throw them over,’ it doesn’t appeal to Latinos and many general election voters. It’s not particularly good long-run politics,” he said.
Herzik cited Sandoval in particular for potentially losing his appeal among Hispanic voters and moderates despite his outreach to those voters and his Hispanic heritage.
Immigration has been a difficult issue for Sandoval since he began his campaign. In response to a question from a Hispanic businesswoman, he flirted with the idea of giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses but later came out against it.
Luis Valera, chairman of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the Arizona law, seemed incredulous when asked about Sandoval’s support for it: “I know Brian. I know he has told me he would never support anything that leads to racial profiling. Not only from a moral standpoint, but it would not stand up to a constitutional challenge.”
Asked to respond to Sandoval’s unequivocal answer, he said, “I’d ask him for a clarification on it.”
Sandoval issued a statement at the request of the Sun.
“Racial profiling is illegal and I do not support it,” the statement read. “I do understand the Hispanic community’s concerns about this law and believe Arizona officials must pay close attention to the implementation of the new law.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.