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How Arizona became ground zero for immigration reform

Arizona didn't turn into a pressure cooker for immigration reform overnight, historians say.

From left to right, Evangeline Copeland, of Tempe, Ariz., Laurie LaBeau, of Gilbert, Ariz., and Beverly Selvage, of Mesa, Ariz., join hundreds as they cheer during a rally organized by supporters of the new Arizona immigration law SB1070 at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix, July 31.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

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Arizona has become the country’s laboratory for immigration reform.

New laws coming out of the state have made it a staging area for a national debate – and a federal-state court battle – over whether the states or federal government should control immigration.

Arizona's immigration teapot seemed to boil over in April, with the passage of the nation’s toughest immigration bill, SB 1070. But the fire was lit much earlier, say historians and sociologists.

IN PICTURES: SB1070: Arizona immigration law protests

It was Operation Blockade in El Paso (1993) and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego (1994) which closed off what had been the two busiest sectors for undocumented migration, “accounting for at least three quarters of the traffic,” says Doug Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. “This diverted the flows through the Sonoran desert into Arizona, which until then had been a quiet backwater both with respect to border crossing and immigration settlement,” he says.

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