By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona landscaper Jose Acosta says he has been pulled over by police in the Mexico border state three or four times for tailgating or driving with a chipped windshield. But really, he believes, it is because of the color of his skin.
"They see me brown. They'll pull me over and ask me for documents. They'll make up a lie about why," said Acosta, 40, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Mexican origin.
He is now among a classroom full of Hispanic U.S. citizens, legal residents and illegal immigrants taking part in a six-week "defense" workshop in central Phoenix to study up on his legal rights.
As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares on Wednesday to hear Arizona defend its crackdown on illegal immigrants, Hispanics in the state are responding to the 2-year-old measure with a surge of activism ranging from civil rights classes to a revved up effort to get out the vote this election year.
The law, signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer in 2010, requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally. The measure is among several blocked by a federal judge.
Brewer and backers of the law, known as SB 1070, said it was needed as Democratic President Barack Obama's administration had failed to secure the porous Mexico border. But Obama and other critics filed suit, arguing it pre-empted Washington's authority on immigration and made Hispanics the target of racial profiling.
"People started waking up, mobilizing and organizing their own community and fighting against SB 1070," community organizer Jovana Renteria said of the jolt the law sent through Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix.
"It's been great because we've seen what we haven't seen in a long time, which is unity in the community."
ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT POPULATION DROPPED
A Supreme Court decision upholding Arizona's law would be a legal and political setback for Obama as he seeks re-election this November. A decision striking down the law would be a defeat for Brewer and a setback for Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney, who supports it.
It will also be closely watched by Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, which followed Arizona in passing "omnibus" immigration crackdowns. A ruling is not expected until June or July.
The law sought to drive illegal immigrants from the state, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the number of undocumented migrants in Arizona dropped dramatically to 360,000 in January 2011 from 470,000 a year earlier, before the law was signed.
A similar number left the state after passage of a 2007 law targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants, the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center said last year.
A Fox News poll this month showed 65 percent of Americans surveyed favored the Arizona law, and Brewer said this week that "the people of America" stood with her state as it prepared to defend it in court. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.
"I have a duty and obligation to defend the people of Arizona - especially when the federal government has fallen down on the job," said Brewer, who was due in Washington on Wednesday for the Supreme Court hearing.
For Arizona Hispanics, the law is just one of many slights in recent years they feel have been piled on their community, which is also on the defensive by sweeps for illegal immigrants by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is currently under federal investigation for improperly targeting Latinos.
They were further riled by a state ban on teaching Mexican-American studies in high school, and a February row over whether a city council candidate could be struck from the ballot over what detractors called an inadequate grasp of English.
"I want to learn stuff so that I can ... explain to a whole bunch of people what to do in certain situations," said Leticia Ramirez, 27, a cake decorator from Mexico who declined to comment on her immigration status, after attending a lesson outlining the rights of immigration detainees.
"People are scared out driving their kids to school ... I want them to know that they have rights," she said of the session, organized by the grassroots Puente community group.
'OVERREACH BY REPUBLICANS'
Acosta, meanwhile, is among participants eager to go further and register Hispanic citizens to vote, so they can have a voice in the November elections as immigration simmers as a second-tier issue behind concern for the shaky economic recovery.
"I'm working out there, getting people out to vote and saying ‘Hey, every vote counts!'" he said. "You can't stand back and do nothing."
Obama's re-election campaign opened a fourth Arizona office in recent days in the heavily Hispanic west Phoenix suburb of Glendale. Whether the immigration row puts Arizona into play for Obama, it is clearly hoping to capitalize on Latino discontent.
"This is the type of hot button issue that provides the perfect vehicle for the Democratic Party to register and mobilize Hispanic voters," said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
"With respect to immigration, it allows them to point to a credible threat. That is, 'If Republicans win, this is the type of policy you are likely to see,'" he added.
The desert state last voted for a Democratic president in 1996, when it returned Bill Clinton to office, although winning the state's 11 electoral votes for Obama is clearly a long shot. Vice President Joe Biden said in Phoenix last week he thought Democrats had a "real shot" in the state in November.
Democrats say the key to winning is boosting support from Arizona's Hispanic citizens, of whom 51.5 percent were registered to vote in 2008, compared with 69 percent of whites.
Democrats believe more Latino registration could help boost Democratic turnout in a state where Republicans make up 36 percent of registered voters, compared with 30 percent for Democrats. Independents comprise nearly 33 percent.
"I think we have in Arizona an overreach where the Republicans have really overplayed their hand," said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, citing the immigration bill and Arpaio's antics.
‘DON'T COMPLAIN IF YOU DON'T VOTE'
To build support among Hispanics, who make up almost a third of the state's 6.5 million population, Democrats are also highlighting Romney's hardline statements on immigration during the primaries.
The former Massachusetts governor has said the federal government should drop its legal case against the Arizona law and stop giving illegal immigrants services that attract them.
In a sign Romney may be softening his tone as he emerges from the hardball primary process, he dropped the tough words on immigration during a visit to the Phoenix Valley last week and sought input from members of a Hispanic roundtable on topics ranging from the economy to immigration.
While it is far from certain the immigration dispute will turn the state Democrat in November, there are signs it could drive up Hispanic participation in the election.
One recent Saturday, Democratic state senate candidate Raquel Teran paced the streets of her strongly Hispanic Phoenix district, armed with a map, a list of registered Democratic voters and a sheaf of voter registration papers. She signed up one new voter at the first house she called at.
Sitting out in the shady yard of her in-laws' home, young mother Yvette Sierra, 22, shared an experience about her husband being pulled over by Arpaio's deputies, who she said let him go only after he produced their young son's U.S. birth certificate.
"He's stopping people and I just don't think it's right," she says, filling out a voter registration form. "I never (voted), never thought about it ... but I'm glad."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)