A Desert Sandstorm

When 100,000 protesters nearly shut down Phoenix last week, Jim Pederson headed for the border. A Democrat running for the Senate in Arizona, he wanted to highlight laxity on the U.S.-Mexican line--and blame it on his opponent, the Republican incumbent, Jon Kyl. Wandering through a patchwork of gap-filled 15-foot fencing and three-foot-high barbed wire, he assailed Kyl for not doing more to beef up border security. "This berm," Pederson said, pointing at a foot-high pile of sand, "is the only thing keeping people out of the United States."

Welcome to ground zero in the immigration wars of 2006, where even one of the Senate's fiercest immigration hard-liners is getting blamed for broken borders. In two terms in the Senate, Kyl has made immigration his signature issue: he's called for tough crackdowns on illegal aliens and criticized the White House's guest-worker plan. Ordinarily, he'd be the one in hiking boots in the desert, calling for drastic change.

But with marchers on the street and Minutemen on the border, nothing is ordinary in Arizona politics today. The state sees nearly half of the illegal crossings into the country each year, and nearly 600,000 of the 1.2 million undocumented workers arrested last year were found inside its boundaries. The crisis has taken over the Senate race, with both candidates trying to present themselves as the face of security and stability. Kyl holds a large lead, but immigration hysteria could help make it "a close race," says Arizona State University political analyst Bruce Merrill.

Other Arizona races are tightening, too. In the Eighth Congressional District, where the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe could help determine control of the House, candidates in both parties are trying to out-tough each other on immigration. Democrats are also going after GOP Rep. J. D. Hayworth, painting him as an extremist who favors vigilantism (Hayworth has defended the Minutemen but backs government enforcement). Both parties see the state's battles as a preview of the national fight to come. "This whole country is about to go 100 percent certifiable nuts over immigration," says one Democratic congressional aide who asked not to be identified so as not to speak on behalf of the party. "Arizona is already there."

Kyl thinks he has a plan to calm the waters. He criticized a Senate compromise, backed by fellow Arizonan John McCain, that would allow many currently undocumented workers to stay in the country as guest workers, saying it would reward illegal behavior. (The compromise failed, but senators have pledged to return to it.) Kyl favors a program in which illegals first go back to their home country, and then return as documented guest workers in accordance with American economic demand. Kyl, who authored a 1996 bill doubling Border Patrol personnel, bristles at Pederson's suggestion that he's failed to deliver on the issue. "There isn't anybody who has worked harder on this in Congress," he says.

Pederson, a former state Democratic Party chairman, has called for increased border security, more federal compensation for the economic burden caused by illegals and a carbon copy of the Senate guest-worker program. Cozying up to McCain is smart politics (McCain is the state's most popular federal official), but it could strike voters as a bit of a stretch (McCain is also Kyl's campaign chairman).

Kyl has other advantages, including a $4.6 million fund-raising edge and as much as a 20-point lead in the polls. But Pederson, who has already put $2 million of his own real-estate fortune into the race, says he has "a very legitimate chance to win." The X factor may be the state's Latino voters--who are pro-immigrant but don't always oppose restrictions. (In 2004, 40 percent of Arizona's Latinos backed Proposition 200, denying state services to noncitizens.) Then, of course, there are the urban protesters--whom both candidates have so far done their best to avoid. That tactic can last only so long, though: it's hard to get people to pay attention to desert photo ops when a storm is swirling in the streets.