LDS politician who led Arizona fight against illegal immigration dies at 75

State senator sponsored law that required police to check the identity papers before he was removed from office.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Arizona Senator Russell Pearce talks in his office at the State Capitol in Phoenix, Ariz., Monday, Sept. 27, 2010.

Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who fathered the nation’s most unforgiving legal sanctions on immigrants — including what came to be known as the “show me your papers” law — only to have some of the legislation revoked and find himself removed from office, died Jan. 5 at his home in Mesa, Arizona. He was 75.

His wife and children announced the death on social media. They said he had become ill earlier in the week, but they did not specify a cause of death.

A fiery critic of congressional policies on immigration, Pearce emerged more than a decade ago, a shooting star on the national stage from a state roiled by debates over the government’s efforts to stem the influx of refugees from Mexico.

While his stardom would prove short-lived, his legislative strategy to rid his state of immigrants who entered the country illegally — “attrition through enforcement” was how he described it — culminated in 2010, when he successfully sponsored Senate Bill 1070. It inspired copycat bills across the country.

The Arizona legislation required police to check the identity papers of anyone whom they detained and suspected of being in the United States without legal permission.

Other provisions of the law — criminalizing the harboring or hiring of such immigrants and requiring them to carry their documentation — immediately prompted a backlash and were overturned two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court upheld the state’s requirement that law enforcement officers verify the status of all individuals who were arrested or detained if they had reason to suspect that they were in the country illegally.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Arizona Senator Russell Pearce visits with Utah Sen. Scott K. Jenkins at the Capitol in Phoenix, Ariz., Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett is in the middle.

After the bill’s passage in Arizona, Pearce, in January 2011, was elected president of the Arizona state Senate, where he had been serving since 2006. Eleven months later, though, he was booted from office, ending an ouster campaign that had at first appeared quixotic. He was the first Arizona lawmaker to lose his job as a result of a recall petition.

“If being recalled is the price for keeping one’s promises,” Pearce said at the time, “then so be it.”

Critics complained that the law he sponsored would encourage the racial profiling of Latino citizens. And some provisions were struck down by the courts, including ones that were superseded by federal law.

Those provisions would have made it a state crime for immigrants without legal status to apply for work in Arizona and would have authorized state and local police to arrest immigrants without a warrant if there was probable cause to believe they had committed a deportable offense.

Other curbs on immigrants were modified by a shrinking Republican majority in the state Legislature under pressure from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Pearce was a member of the church himself), and from business and civic leaders who said Arizona’s anti-immigrant image was bad for business.

Pearce often insisted that he was neither anti-immigrant nor motivated by racial prejudice; rather, he said, as a sheriff’s deputy for 23 years (including a stint under Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, known nationally for his hostility to immigrants), he was upholding the sanctity of the law.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Arizona Senator Russell Pearce talks in his office at the State Capitol in Phoenix, Ariz., Monday, Sept. 27, 2010.

“We’re a nation of laws,” he said on NPR in 2008, adding, “I will not back off until we solve the problem of this illegal invasion.”

He denounced legislation proposed in Congress in 2005 that would have created a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally — if they worked steadily and learned English — as a “treacherous, treasonous bill,” even though it was sponsored by a fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain.

There were times when fellow conservatives said Pearce had gone too far. In 2014, when he was first vice chair of the Arizona Republican Party, a post he had held since 2012, he insisted that when he made remarks supporting mandatory birth control or sterilization for Medicaid recipients, he was actually quoting someone else. The comments ultimately led to his resignation.

Russell Keith Pearce, a fifth-generation Arizonan, was born June 23, 1947, in Mesa to Hal Frost Pearce, an auto mechanic (and, he said, an alcoholic), and Norma Crandell, a musician and homemaker. His parents divorced when he was 13. The family was impoverished, but, he later recalled, his mother refused to accept groceries left by neighbors.

After serving with the National Guard in Arizona during the Vietnam War, Pearce joined the sheriff’s office, where, in one highly publicized move, he and Arpaio proposed that inmates be housed in tents. While working there, he earned a degree in management from the University of Phoenix. He went on to serve as director of the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division.

Elected to Arizona’s House of Representatives in 2000 and the state Senate in 2006, he supported the state’s Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship before Arizonans can register to vote or apply for public benefits.

He tried to mount a political comeback in 2012, seeking another Republican nomination for state Senate, but he lost. He later worked for the Maricopa County treasurer.

In a statement, Pearce’s family said he “lived a life of service to God, family and country.”

His survivors include his wife, LuAnne; their children, Dodi, Sean, Colten, Justin and Joshua; and three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.