Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce and his opponent in a recall election met in their first debate Thursday, sparring over illegal immigration and its financial impact on education and businesses.
Pearce faces charter school executive Jerry Lewis, a fellow Republican, in the Nov. 8 recall election that resulted from a petition drive.
Pearce is known nationally for championing tough legislation against illegal immigration, including SB1070. A federal judge has put key provisions of the law on hold, and Gov. Jan Brewer is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the law and allow it to take effect.
The law would require all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers and requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question people's immigration status if there is a reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally.
Pearce defended Arizona's right to enforce immigration laws and argued against a moderator's statement that SB1070 has damaged the state's reputation and cost it millions of tourism dollars.
"Arizona suffers from a great reputation, not a bad reputation," he said. "We've changed the debate in Washington, D.C.
"Enough is enough. We're a nation of laws," he said. "We're a kind people, we allow more people in the U.S. legally than every other developed nation combined, but we have laws and we have a method to come here and that method must be honored and respected, and that's what I expect."
Lewis got equal amounts of boos and cheers after he criticized what he called "piecemeal" and "antiquated" immigration laws and called for a "more humane" way to address the immigration issue in a way that will work.
"Yes, we need to enforce all the laws but we need to make sure those laws are constitutionally vetted and work," he said. "We cannot be the federal government's agents in doing the job that they have to do. If we can focus our energies on first agreeing in our own state what we want, trust me, Washington will listen to us."
Another moderator asked Pearce and Lewis whether they're concerned about Arizona's agricultural industry's chances for survival without immigrant workers, pointing to Georgia and Alabama. Those states have recently passed tough immigration laws that could spell financial trouble for the state's agriculture industry, which relies on immigrant labor to harvest and process crops.
Pearce said he thinks the U.S. should redo its visa system to help meet the growing needs of farmers.
Lewis said agricultural jobs are jobs Americans won't do, but offered no solution to the matter except to generally call for immigration reform.
The organizers of the petition drive that led to the recall election have said that Pearce has been out of touch with district voters' concerns on education, health care and the economy. He denies that and says recall organizers targeted him because of his support for laws against illegal immigration.
Lewis has said he entered the race at the urging of Mesa residents who wanted more emphasis on the economy and education in the Legislature. He's also said that the 2010 law on illegal immigration was a good start toward reform and border security, but broader action on the issue is needed.