Category Archives: Immigration

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.

Guatemalans’ Missing children

Last week, the U.S. State Department announced that it would not return a girl adopted from Guatemala in 2008, even though courts there found that she had been kidnapped. The child’s mother, working with Fundación Sobreviventes (a feminist group that works on femicide, child sexual abuse, and children lost to adoptions) has said that she will travel to Missouri to ask a court there to return custody of her daughter to her. The child’s adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, have consistently said that they have a complete and valid adoption, and, after an appearance on the CBS Early Show in 2010, have hired a publicity firm and refused to speak to anyone about the case.

According to Erin Siegel, a journalist who has done some of the best  U.S.-based reporting on adoption from Guatemala, the child, Anyelí Hernández Rodríguez, was 2 years old when disappeared from the patio of the family’s home in San Miguel Petapa, a small community outside Guatemala City, while her mother was bringing in groceries. Although the family searched for her–putting up posters, contacting the police, and attempting to visit orphanages, Anyelí was offered for adoption to the Monahans in 2007. A DNA test found that the supposed birth mother who was relinquishing Anyelí was fraudulent. According to emails published by Siegel, Sue Hedberg, the director of the Christian adoption agency, Celebrate Children International, told Jennifer Monahan that although increased scrutiny had made it much more difficult for the company involved, LabCorp, to “bury” the DNA test, Monahan might be offered the child again under a different name. Subsequently, Hedberg made “Karen Abigail” available to the Monahans for adoption, a child of the same age who was allegedly abandoned. When Anyelí’s birthparents got access to adoption records in Guatemala with the help of Sobreviventes, they identified “Karen Abigail” as their daughter from the photo on the birth certificate. By then, however, she had already left the country with the Monahans, on her way to Liberty, Mo., with the help of Susana Luarca a Guatemalan lawyer notorious in human rights circles, and identified in the US press as a participant in abusive adoption practices at least six years earlier.

I’m always afraid people think I’m making stuff up when I write about adoption from Guatemala, but this case has published documents and multiple convictions of people involved. It’s also a lot like other cases I wrote about in Somebody’s Children.

Anyeli’s mother, Loyda Rodríguez, participated in the 2008 Sobreviventes hunger strike that finally led to the halting of most adoptions from Guatemala to the US (as most other nations had long since stopped them). As she continued to pursue the case, through activism and the courts, Rodríguez also faced stepped up harassment: her sister was abducted (although she escaped), and she was followed by strange cars. Finally, Rodríguez took her three children and fled the Guatemala City area in terror.

The manifest unhelpfulness of the U.S. State Department, the Guatemalan police and government agencies that Rodríguez truned to for help, and the fact that she has been harassed and terrorized should not surprise us. Adoption from Guatemala to the United States  became a huge money-making enterprise carried out by courts, lawyers, and government agencies together with criminal mafias in the 90s and first decade after 2000. Before that, disappearing children was a practice carried out by militaries and paramilitaries to terrorize their supposed enemies on the political Left. As the human rights groups Todos por el Reencuentro has documented, thousands of children were disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala, beginning with a vengeance in the 1980s. This story, along with the attempted genocide of indigenous people there, has been thoroughly ignored in the United States. Most of these children were adopted within Guatemala, but some made their way into adoption to the US, Canada, and Western Europe. By 1994, when the Peace Accords were signed, adoption had become a very lucrative enterprise. As the war to defeat Communism in Guatemala was ending, members of the military and others began engaging in a particularly spectacular form of neoliberal capitalism: the disappearance and sale of children for up to $30,000 each in adoption “fees.” The worst was that most of it was all perfectly legal, a fact that hindered the efficacy of international human rights activism against “trafficking” or “illegal” adoption.

Fortunately for Anyelí’s mother, there were actual crimes committed in her case: a falsified birth certificate, a documented abduction. Whether the Missouri courts will find those issues relevant remains to be seen. But for thousands of Guatemalans–as for Salvadorans and Argentines–one of the legacies of the wars and their aftermath is children disappeared, alive, and still unaccounted for, or known to be raised by other families.

But when Guatemalan and other Central American survivors of the civil wars and US proxy wars in the region in the 1980s and 90s arrive in the United States, they encounter other “security” forces that prosecute them for the crime of fleeing without the visas the US refused (and refuses) to grant them. Sometimes, they also take their children away here.

For example, in a case that has received widespread attention, Encarnación Bail Romero, one of 136 immigrant detained in a workplace raid of poultry processing plant in Missouri in April 2007, had parental rights to her six month old son terminated as a result. Hers was among the first raids the Department of Homeland Security pursued as part of a campaign they called “Operation Return to Sender,” which promised to aggressively prosecute “crimes” related to false identification, to sentence and hold people on those crimes, to conduct workplace raids, and to deport people whose status was suspect. So Bail was charged with possessing a fake ID, and served a year and a half in jail for that crime, waiting to be deported after she had served her sentence.

At first, her baby, Carlos, stayed with two aunts. But they were sharing a tiny apartment with six of their own children, and had very little money. When a teacher’s aid at one of their children’s school offered to find someone else to care for Carlos, they agreed. Three months later, the aid visited Encarnación in jail, saying a couple with land and a beautiful house wanted to adopt Carlos. She said no. A few weeks later, an adoption petition arrived at the jail, in English. Encarnación was not literate in Spanish, never mind English. Still, with the help of Mexican cellmate, a guard, and a bilingual Guatemalan visitor, she prepared a response to the court: “I do not want my son to be adopted by anyone,” she wrote on a piece of notebook paper. “I would prefer that he be placed in foster care until I am not in jail any longer. I would like to have visitation with my son.” Although she repeatedly asked judges and lawyers for help, it was a year before she found a lawyer who would take the case. By then, it was too late. The couple caring for Carlos complained that she had sent no money for his support and had not contacted him. A year and a half after she went to jail, a judge terminated her parental rights and permitted the other couple to adopt him. “Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country,” Judge Dally wrote, referring to the false ID, “is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child. A child cannot be educated this way, always in hiding or on the run.”

In another closely watched case, María Luis, a Guatemalan, a Maya-Kiché woman in Grand Isle, Nebraska (the site of another large workplace raid, although Luis had come to the attention of authorities earlier) had her parental rights terminated as well, following her arrest for lying to the police and subsequent deportation. María had taken her one-year old daughter, Angelica, to the doctor for a respiratory infection. Although she was a Kiché-speaker, the doctors instructed her in Spanish about how to care for the child. When she failed to arrive for a follow-up appointment, social services went to her house with the police. When asked if she was her children’s mother, María, frightened that she would be in trouble because of her immigration status, said she was the babysitter. The police arrested her on a criminal charge for falsely identifying herself, and she was deported. Angelica and Daniel, 7, went to foster care, and state social services began proceedings to terminate her parental rights. Federal immigration officials gave her no opportunity to participate in those proceedings, and she lost the children. In April, 2009, four years after the children were originally sent to foster care, the Nebraska Supreme Court restored her parental rights, saying that federal immigration officials had denied her due process rights in interfering with her ability to participate in the state proceedings, and that state officials had never provided her with an interpreter, never explained the process through which she could seek custody of the children, and never made any effort to reunify the family, largely because social service workers “thought the children would be better off staying in the United States.”

Stories like these are unusual, in that the mothers finally were able to obtain effective counsel and were able to contest the state social services efforts. National organizations sent out press releases; the cases were publicized in national media and on the Internet. More commonly, no one hears about these cases except the people who know the family and the officials involved. The Urban Institute, in two recent reports, has suggested that there may be hundreds of thousands of children affected by federal immigrant deportations, an unknown number of whom may also be caught in state social welfare cases.  An estimated 4.5 million children in the United States in 2005 had at least one undocumented parent.

Although there is no organized campaign to separate immigrant parents from Guatemala or elsewhere from their children, it is a consequence of workplace raids, criminalization of undocumented status, the absence of civil rights in immigrant detention (including the right to make a phone call to notify people of your whereabouts, or finding out what’s happened to your children), and stepped-up anti-immigrant attacks.  In October, when Alabama’s harsh anti-immigration law was passed, a mother told the UK Guardian that she was drawing up power-of-attorney papers to allow her niece to assume custody of her U.S. citizen children if she were detained by immigration officials. She described her concerns in exactly these terms: “I’m afraid I could disappear without anyone knowing what’s happened to me,” she said. … who knows what would happen to me in jail.”

Nearly two decades after the end of the civil wars in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, mothers and children are still being disappeared, some of them in the United States.


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