What Democrats running for Arizona governor say they would do at the border if elected
Democratic candidates for Arizona governor say they will offer a less-politicized approach to immigration and the state's southern border than their Republican contenders if they are chosen to lead the state.
While Republican candidates are pledging to blow up tunnels and arm soldiers to take on tasks reserved for federal agents, their Democratic counterparts say their role is to work with the federal government for immigration reform. They offered ideas to support local law enforcement and community service organizations, too.
Immigration is a top issue for Arizona voters, and the politics of the issue are heightened ahead of this year's midterm election as Democrats deal with the fallout of the Biden administration's controversial quest to lift Title 42, a public health policy that allowed the nation to turn away 1.7 million migrants due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Democratic candidates for governor are Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman and former Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez.
The Grand Canyon State's 1.3 million Democrats — roughly a third of registered voters — will pick their candidate on Aug. 2, who will go on to face a Republican challenger in the November general election. Gov. Doug Ducey, who is in his second term in office, cannot run again and ends his run tenure as Arizona's 23rd governor in January 2023.
Hobbs, Lopez and Lieberman all say the role of a governor is to advocate for reform at the federal level. They also all said the federal government should fully reimplement the Obama-era immigration program that allowed young people who came to the United States illegally as children to avoid deportation if they met certain requirements, known as the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
These are their plans, should they get elected, on issues related to immigration and the state's 373-mile southern border.
Hobbs was already hit with political fallout on immigration-related issues, and deep pocketed conservative groups are pledging to make sure voters keep hearing about it.
When Dennis Welch, political editor for Arizona's Family stations, asked Hobbs a yes or no question — whether she supported ending Title 42 — Hobbs said simply, "Title 42 is not working."
Weeks later, following criticism from Republicans, she repeated that it wasn't working in a released statement but added that "lifting Title 42 without a clear plan to secure our border would be a disaster." She urged President Joe Biden to reverse his "rash decision and finally commit the necessary resources to end the chaos at our border.”
Multiple committees that seek to elect Republicans immediately seized on Hobbs' statements, portraying her as weak at the border and ill prepared to lead the state when border crossings are at a peak and could increase. This month, the Republican Governors Association's political action arm debuted an ad attacking Hobbs on the issue.
In a later interview with The Arizona Republic, Hobbs said the Biden administration should end Title 42 only with a plan in place to address the influx of migrants, striking the approach championed by swing-state Democratic U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. She also brushed aside Republican criticism that is sure to continue for the months ahead of the election.
"It's ridiculous that we are talking about this as a core issue in the governor's race," Hobbs said about Title 42. "I could stand here and say, 'Build the wall,' and they're gonna call me open borders. It really doesn't matter what I say for the Republicans, they're going to just misconstrue everything."
Hobbs said if she is elected she would encourage the Biden administration to provide more work visas for immigrants. As for state resources, Hobbs said she would seek to allocate additional funding for law enforcement agencies, hospitals and community services in border communities. Doing so likely would require backing from the state Legislature, however, which could remain in Republicans' control following the election.
Asked if she would continue some of Ducey's signature border efforts, she signaled openness but also skepticism.
Hobbs said she would consider further deployments of the Arizona National Guard to support law enforcement if necessary, and signaled she'd support continuing Ducey's Border Strike Force, though she said it was a misleading title for what she considered a drug-interdiction unit. The Border Strike Force, a result of Ducey's campaign pledges to do more to secure the border, has touted sizable drug seizures that resulted from routine patrols by state troopers far from the southern border.
Her record: Hobbs served in the state Legislature from 2011 to 2019, when she took office as secretary of state. In 2016, she voted with her party to oppose a bill that would have withheld state funding from sanctuary cities, which were already banned in Arizona. That same year, she opposed two measures requiring tougher sentencing requirements for undocumented individuals convicted of crimes. In 2011 and 2012, Hobbs voted against two bills that authorized the building of and earmarked some state funding for a border fence.
If he is elected, Lieberman said he would advocate for the federal government to make immigration reforms, including a guest worker visa program.
"We need to have a safe and secure border that makes sure we're able to keep up our incredible trade relationship with Mexico and ensure the safety of everybody involved," Lieberman said.
The specifics of what he'd do at the border with state resources, including whether he'd continue Ducey's strike forces and deployment of National Guard soldiers, depends on the needs of local law enforcement, he said. He said he would do a review upon taking office to identify what is working for Arizonans.
"I would really listen to our local law enforcement and our counties that are bordering the border to see what they need and see how our state government can be a good partner to them," he said. While some conversations have taken place, Lieberman said he expected more specifics about his policy to come in the months ahead.
Lieberman said lifting Title 42 was not the right move for Arizona.
"I think we need to keep Title 42 in place right now until we can make the investments we need to ensure that we could deal with anyone who's presenting at our border," he said.
His record: During almost three years as a state representative, Lieberman twice voted in favor of a bill giving $1.1 million to border sheriffs to buy cameras and software for enforcement, though the measure did not become law. In 2020, he opposed a bill that would have allowed private landowners to build their own sections of wall without permits, and last year he opposed a resolution — a ceremonial declaration that does not carry the weight of law — honoring U.S. Border Patrol agents for their "courage, dedication and sacrifice."
Lopez stands out in the Democratic field when it comes to immigration issues: The son of immigrant parents, he also served as mayor of Nogales — home to Arizona's busiest port of entry — and was executive director of the Arizona-Mexico Commission.
He followed then-Gov. Janet Napolitano into federal service, working as chief of staff for U.S. Customs and Border Protection under then-President Barack Obama. At the Arizona-Mexico Commission, Lopez led the nonprofit tasked with building ties and trade with Arizona's southern neighbor.
Lopez said he would advocate for Congress to make key immigration reforms, including reinstating citizenship for DACA recipients and their families. He said he would urge the federal government to expand immigration courts, and he cast border issues in economic terms. In that light, Arizona is losing out, he said.
"We should have more ports," he said. "We should have more trade, so that we can have more jobs. ... Having a governor that understands the economy, and the economics tied to border security, is key."
As to state resources, Lopez said he would increase state Department of Public Safety patrols targeting dangerous drugs that make it across the border, but he hesitated when asked if he'd send National Guard troops to do potentially hazardous border work, citing concerns about the nature of their training.
"I would just be very careful to use those authorities with the seriousness that they deserve because you're putting people in harm's way," he said. "These guardsmen have different skills, are trained differently."
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He does not support creating additional physical barriers along the state's southern border, and said he would end state participation in Ducey's American Governors' Border Strike Force, a collaboration of 26 Republican governors to share intelligence about border issues.
"If the objective is to secure and make southern Arizona safer because of what he perceives is law enforcement vulnerabilities, then let's focus on that," he said, adding that he has "a little bit more experience" than governors whose states are far afield from Arizona and its border with Mexico.
As other pandemic-related measures have ended, Lopez said Title 42 should cease, too. "It needs to end but it needs to end consistent with being ready and prepared," he said.