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Immigration Hawks: Landing in a Gov’s Office Near You

If you thought Arizona’s Jan Brewer was a hardliner, wait until you meet these gubernatorial frontrunners.

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Both Martinez and Sandoval could also benefit from being minority governors who are better positioned to pass anti-immigration measures without alienating Hispanics, in contrast to polarizing fire-breathers like Angle or Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer. Martinez "has the ability as a Hispanic candidate of not coming of as anti-Hispanic," says Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor and head of polling firm Latino Decisions. He adds: "Sandoval, he's a bit of the same…it gives him the ability to differentiate himself from Sharron Angle." Likewise, South Carolina's Nikki Haley—who's likely to become the country's second Indian-American governor—has also voiced strong support for Arizona-style immigration legislation. Having also experienced a recent influx of immigrants, the state is among the four most likely to pass a copycat law, according to ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-immigration group backed by the business community.

The likely surge of anti-immigration governors will also accompany a similar shift rightward in Congress, with Republicans are all but certain to take over the House. Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Steve King (R-Iowa)—both well-known immigration hawks—are expected to assume key leadership positions on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues. Just the same, congressional Republicans have already made it clear that their priority will be to obstruct legislation, not pass it. And states will be under increasing pressure to act on the issue. "The governors are the ones who can make the biggest difference on their own," says Beck.

Despite the legal challenges facing Arizona's law, some state governments and municipalities have shown no signs of holding back. In Nebraska, for example, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman put an immigration at the heart of both his 2006 campaign and his reelection bid this year, promising that one of his first priorities during his next term will be to make it easier for police to arrest illegal immigrants. And across the country, the next big immigration showdown is likely to form around a Supreme Court case challenging a separate Arizona law that requires all employers to verify the citizenship status of their employees or face sanctions. If the court upholds the law, conservative states could leap to legislate such verification—and anti-immigration governors could have a huge role in that battle.

To be sure, some of the inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric that's surfaced this election cycle has been purely political in nature, meant to whip up a populist fervor rther than lay the groundwork for future action. But candidates like Deal and Martinez, who've long committed themselves to tougher immigration laws—and who've placed the issue at the heart of their campaigns—are likely to try and fulfill their campaign promises. "We won't know that until they start governing, but given that [these candidates] are saying the sorts of things they've been saying, you'll expect them to follow up," says Barreto. "And the Right is going to hold them to it."

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