Against Discouragement: Arizona and Immigration

Sign in an Arizona storefront window

Many inside and outside Arizona, including me, were hoping that the US Supreme Court would overturn SB 1070 this week, the Arizona measure dubbed the “show me your papers” law. Instead, it upheld the two centerpieces of the law: that local law enforcement officials be allowed to request documentation of legal status from people it arrested, and, without an arrest, to ask for proof of status from those police had probable cause to believe had committed a crime. The court essentially said it couldn’t decide if allowing police to harass those who looked undocumented meant allowing a policy of racial profiling unless the measure went into effect and we saw what happened, a position that sounds absurd to most people I know.

The ruling means Arizonans–and immigration activists elsewhere–are not going to get help from the Supreme Court or the federal government. But maybe there is a silver lining in all this. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court has simply given us some clarity about the fact that it can’t and never could have fixed what went wrong in Arizona.

Some history might help. Think back to the beginning of George W. Bush’s first term. He, the former Texas governor, had announced his support for immigration reform and the Republic convention that made him a presidential candidate had prominently featured his brown nephews and nieces. The white racist wing of the Republican party was definitely on the outside looking for a way back in to national politics. California governor Pete Wilson had lost the Republican presidential primary in 1996, many said because of his support for the controversial anti-immigrant ballot measure in his home state, Proposition 187. Nativist Pat Buchanan’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 had ended, delightfully enough, after he was booed in Tucson, Arizona, when he appeared in the Rodeo Parade–a local institution that his advisors apparently failed to note was also known as the Fiesta de los Vaqueros. That was Arizona then–a funky libertarian place, where ballot measures to ban or limit abortion failed consistently, and in 2006 was the first state to vote against a ballot measure banning same-sex marriage. Tucson’s population was and is more Latino and Native than it is Anglo; for most of the first decade after 2000, it had a Democratic governor.

After the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda operatives, though, racist groups from around the country began funneling money into Arizona, using the whole state as a kind of focus group for anti-immigrant politics. Some who had been active in California’s Prop 187 campaign bought land along the border, and in 2005, a national campaign to put armed, militia-style anti-immigrant vigilantes along Arizona’s border hired a big PR firm and became known as the “Minutemen.” The group prominently featured neo-Nazis, Vietnam-era Special Forces veterans, and former Contra-era mercenaries trained by the US military. If the goal was “defending the border,” as they claimed, the operation was a failure. The border is a big place, and their presence was insignificant by comparison. If the goal was building an anti-immigrant presence in Arizona and in the national news, it was a coup.

I start with all this to remind us how anti-immigrant politics were built: slowly and painstakingly, through organizing and money. It’s not difficult for a national group to overwhelm politics as usual in Arizona, an impoverished state with 6.5 million people, a very uneven educational system, and a thin civic culture.

While the Supreme Court’s failure to overturn SB 1070 is a disappointing outcome, I suspect that help from the federal government doesn’t mean much in this context, and false hope may be worse than no hope. I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with the liberal discourse on this subject, which is basically derived from the Civil Rights movement: Mississippi c. 1964. It has it that Arizona is an exceptionally racist state, and the rednecks there need to be stopped by the federal government from waging war on Latin Americans and Latinos within their borders. In this account, SB 1070 is a radical break with the past. Arizona law enforcement is too crazy and stupid to enforce immigration laws, and it is better left to the federal government and ICE, who are more restrained and law-abiding.

While Sheriff Joe Arpaio and plenty of other Arizona elected officials and activists give plenty of warrant for the “crazy and stupid” view, I want to suggest that this account is more wrong than right. First, we need to recognize that building anti-immigrant activism was a well-funded national project. It certainly found fertile ground in Arizona, where it resonated with fears about a crumbling health infrastructure in a state where demographics are skewed elderly, and a weak state budget in an economy hit early and hard by the recession–a state that had relied on (now-slashed) federal government spending, a private sector that was basically (now-shuttered) branch offices of California industry, and now utterly defunct real estate growth. Does Arizona have sufficient jobs or benefits for its population? Absolutely not. Is this the fault of immigrants? Compared to what–state tax cuts in boom times? Hover-esque policies in state government that have left the economy circling the drain? Of course not. But since (liberals please note) Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper shut down border crossing in California and Texas while deliberately leaving it open across Arizona’s desert, Arizona residents are not crazy for feeling besieged and like resources for often sick and injured crossers are overtaxed. Thousands of people crossing border ranches every night has a devastating effect on local ecosystems, and the Tribal Council at the Tohono O’odham reservation near the border–an area the size of Rhode Island–has complained that the drug smugglers in the mix of people crossing the desert have made their community frighteningly unsafe. While I’m not interested in defending anti-immigrant forces at all, I do want to insist that there are real problems that keep generating  anti-immigrant sentiment–and hence, a real political debate to be had about how to solve them, a conversational space that gets shut down by labeling people as rednecks and racists.

Second, I am neither convinced that SB 1070 is a break with the past nor that federal ICE enforcement is so much better. Two stories.

On August 19, 2009–before SB 1070–a friend of mine, let’s call her Mercedes, was pulled over for running a yellow light by the Tucson Police Department, just a few months after she had gotten stopped for having window tinting that police said was too dark. She was, basically, stopped for the crime known locally as driving while brown. She gave them her license and registration. They asked her to prove that the two-year old in the car seat in back, let’s call her Stephanie, was hers. She produced her birth certificate, which said she was born in Tucson. The police asked Mercedes to prove she was in the US legally. Mercedes produced her border-crossing card, which allowed her to visit freely but not live in the US. The police said that Stephanie’s birth certificate proved that Mercedes was living in the US. They detained her, called ICE, and transferred her a few hours later to ICE.

ICE took her to a detention facility 75 miles away, manhandled her, and separated her from the baby. They refused to tell her where the baby was or allow her to call a friend to take her. In keeping with policies ostensibly aimed at identifying immigration traffickers and rings, Obama’s ICE grilled her: who was she working for, what relatives did she have in the US, where was she living? Mercedes refused to give up her friends and relatives, so ICE officials threatened to put Stephanie in foster care. This went on for four days, while friends and the immigration lawyer who had been trying to regularize her status could get no word of her. Finally, they dropped her and Stephanie across the border at 3 am with no money, no phone, without having eaten all day. A fellow deportee loaned her her phone, and a family member drove down with clothes, money, and food. A few days later, her husband and two older children joined her, and they went back to the small town just south of the border they had left. They joined the ranks of the very poor again.

Two things are worth noting about this story. First, the claim that local law enforcement wasn’t checking papers before is unsupportable, and the argument that police can only inquire into someone’s status if they are arrested for another crime is very weak stuff indeed. Anyone can be arrested for something if you try hard enough. If the goal is really just to check papers, the charge doesn’t have to be able to stand up in court. Second, there is nothing gentle or civilized about what happens after you get picked up by the feds.

Another: in August 2004, my 16-year old Mexican-American child was pulled off a bus she was taking from Tucson to Phoenix by ICE, questioned, and asked to prove her status. They finally accepted her school ID, since she couldn’t produce a birth certificate, but the whole thing left me with nightmares about her getting dropped on the streets of a border town on the Mexican side. ICE doesn’t need to have a hearing or even let people suspected of immigration violations contact family members or a lawyer before deporting them. They can simply disappear people.

So U.S. Latinos, even children, were getting harassed and made to produce papers in Arizona long before SB 1070. I’m not sure it matters so desperately which uniform the officials demanding papers are wearing, nor am I convinced that how you will fare if you are at the wrong end of that transaction will be predictably better or worse if it’s police or ICE.

What I do know is this: the Obama administration has deported about 1.7 million immigrants, more than any other president in history. Carving out an exception for 1 million Dream Act kids who are in college or the military and are “American in their hearts,” may well solidify the administration’s authority and legitimacy at home and abroad as it continues its unprecedented removal campaign (as Elliot Young argues in his smart piece on History News Network). Furthermore, if Arpiao was out of control, harassing and terrifying immigrants–and I think he was–he did it with the Obama administration’s blessing. Arpaio and company were deputized as federal immigration enforcers by the federal government under a 287(g) arrangement that allowed the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office to arrest and detain people on immigration violations, an arrangement re-certified by the Obama administration until it pulled it this week. So we can’t just let go and let Obama, or the Supreme Court, and trust that all the terror and bile in play about immigration will get better.

The fight to make the U.S.–including Arizona–a just and hospitable place for immigrants and all brown people can’t be won or lost in a case like Arizona v. United States. In fact, it will be won the same way anti-immigrant forces created the present climate–by organizing, talking to people, going to meetings and making arguments, making the case in the media, in religious groups, in every kind of virtual and face-to-face social network, large and small. We live in a country that has been fundamentally transformed by the Black freedom movement, by feminism, and gay liberation activism, which should surely give us hope that organizing by committed people can change it again. Groups in Arizona like Humane Borders, Derechos Humanos, Borderlinks, the Casa Maria Catholic Worker Community, No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, Samaritans/Samaritanos, a really stunning number of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, every middle-schooler, high school, or college student who ever walked out in support of immigrant rights or against SB 1070, the teachers and professors that demand people remember that Arizona was once Mexico and the US has not always called immigrants “illegal” or “aliens,” the lawyers who try to regularize people’s status, those who plant and grow crops to increase food security for undocumented people…all these and many more are who can put a stop harassment by law enforcement and terror, disappearances, and deportation. And will.

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