A heavyset man dressed in camouflage pants, boots, and a navy blue T-shirt stands in front of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tent city. The man waves a large confederate flag with a rattlesnake in the middle and the words "Don't Tread on Me" written across the bottom. The flag swirls in the hot air of this May 2, 2009 afternoon. To the left of this man is another with an automatic weapon in a tactical drop holster strapped around his thigh. He is waving the flag of the state of Arizona. To the right of the first man is a guy dressed in black standing on a Mexican flag, holding a large banner that says "Deport All Illegal Scum." The eyes of these three men are fixed on a stream of marchers demanding comprehensive immigration reform who have walked six miles from downtown Phoenix.
The heavyset man, J.T. Ready, has periodically received attention from the local press and from watchdog organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center. In June 2010, he organized a "minutemen on steroids" patrol in the Arizona desert. His name has also surfaced in discussions of Russell Pearce, the person behind SB1070. Pearce has lately disowned Ready, though Ready has not necessarily disowned Pearce. Characters such as Ready and his buddies in the national socialist movement are only the most visible aspect of an unwanted inheritance.
Most policymakers do not like to speak of race and immigration in the same breath, but there are good reasons why the ghost of race is not easily put to rest when it comes to immigration. Decisions and policies formulated by government officials and citizen groups are bound up with a complex history in which racialized identities circulate in different guises. Powerful ideas such as the nation, sovereignty, national security, cultural integrity, and criminality orbit around these constructions in a complicated constellation that creates openings for such thought-stopping claims as: "It's got nothing to do with race. It's about obeying the law."
During the past several years all of these ideas, but especially security and crime have been cited as justifications for stricter immigration enforcement, culminating in Arizona's SB1070, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. Race has often been used to demonize those considered the enemy in times of war. We are now living through a moment in history in which war has been declared on undocumented migrants, their families, their communities, and by extension all of our communities. The goal is to make "them" go away. This war goes by the name of "attrition through enforcement" and is the brainchild of Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which presents itself as an impartial, research organization, but which has been identified as part of the nativist lobby by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In May 2006, Krikorian wrote an article entitled "A Third Way," which he suggested was better than legalization or mass deportation. This third way, or "attrition through enforcement," would "prevent illegals from being able to embed themselves in our society, denying them access to jobs, identification, housing, and in general making it as difficult as possible for an illegal immigrant to live a normal life."
While no overarching federal or local enforcement strategy goes by the name of "attrition through enforcement," its underlying philosophy has been embraced by officials across the political spectrum and it has become the de facto way of dealing with undocumented immigration in various places such as Arizona. SB1070 is part of this strategy, but so are the numerous other anti-immigrant bills in Arizona and elsewhere that have preceded it and that will likely follow. Arizona's Proposition 200, which passed in November 2004 with 56 percent of the vote, was a forerunner of this strategy. Prop. 200 was a ballot initiative that, among other things, required proof of citizenship to vote. Ostensibly a local measure, it was pushed by a group called Protect Arizona Now (PAN). However, crucial support was provided by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) through a signature drive and ad campaign.
Dr. Virginia Abernathy who was brought in as an advisor at the time held leadership positions in several organizations that advocate racial purity—for example, the Council of Conservative Citizens that has its origins in the White Citizens Councils of the 1960s. Abernathy is currently on the advisory board of the Occidental Quarterly, a white separatist publication whose editor is Kevin MacDonald, director of the American Third Position, which has recently gained notoriety for its contributions to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's defense fund.
In November 2006, Arizona passed 4 propositions all of which received more than 70 percent voter approval:
- Prop.100 amended the Arizona constitution to deny bail to undocumented migrants charged with Class 1, 2, 3, or 4 felonies
- Prop.102 denies civil lawsuit awards to anyone who is undocumented
- Prop.103 makes English the official language of Arizona
- Prop.300 requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition at public universities and prohibits them from receiving any type of financial assistance that is funded with state money
None of these have been enough for folks like Russell Pearce who now want to eliminate birthright citizenship for babies born to parents without documentation and charge undocumented children tuition for attending public schools.
Arizona is not alone in this frenzy to "rid" the country of migrants without papers. One of the earliest and most well-known pieces of local legislation was an ordinance passed by the City Council in Hazelton, Pennsylvania on July 13, 2006. This legislation made English the official language, imposed fines on landlords who rented to undocumented migrants, and revoked the business permits of those who hired them. The ordinance was found unconstitutional a year later, but that did not stop it from having a negative effect. People began packing up and leaving just as they are now doing in Arizona. The most recent is Fremont, Nebraska where voters approved a ban on hiring or renting property to undocumented migrants. The vote in Nebraska was the culmination of a two-year process of collecting signatures and putting the ban on the ballot.
These actions are not simply isolated local events, but part of the broader "attrition through enforcement" philosophy. They are often coordinated at the national level by anti-immigrant organizations such as FAIR and its affiliates. FAIR is based in Washington, DC and has over 200,000 members nationwide. It is the largest, oldest, and best known anti-immigrant organization and acts as something of an umbrella for the movement as a whole. Kris Kobach, the lawyer who wrote Arizona's SB1070, works for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, an affiliate of FAIR. Kobach was also involved in the Fremont, Nebraska ordinance. FAIR helped start the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in 1985—the organization run by Krikorian. FAIR and CIS, major players in the anti-immigrant movement, have supported border vigilantes such as the Minuteman Project. CIS reports, articles, and studies are widely cited by immigration researchers and frequently appear in the mainstream press. Its directors often testify on Capitol Hill and have played a central role in legitimating the exclusionary practices in place today.
The underlying logic of these strategies is a very dangerous one that functions to legitimate extremists such as J.T. Ready and creates an atmosphere of indifference, intolerance, and hate. Ordinary citizens and political leaders have bought into the dubious notions that our borders are not secure, that violence is spilling across the border from Mexico into the United States, and that most undocumented migrants are criminals.
We are constantly bombarded with these messages from our leaders, the press, and the television news media. Brewer's recent comment that most undocumented migrants were drug smugglers and John McCain's TV ad that says we need to finish "da dang fence" are prime examples of this. It should come as no surprise that folks like J.T. Ready are attracted to the anti-immigrant cause or that Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau appears on a white supremacist radio program or that a white supremacist organization like American Third Position contributes to Governor Brewer's defense fund. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League report significant increases in hate groups that use the national immigration debate to attract new members. Many, if not most, of these hate groups are white supremacist/white nationalist.
Folks like J.T. Ready and the overtly supremacist groups they belong to, as well as ostensibly more "moderate" groups such as Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project, no longer have center stage in the anti-immigrant movement. To a large extent they have been up-staged by elected officials and anti-immigrant lawyers like Kris Kobach who share important aspects of their ideology.
Writer Hannah Arendt coined the term the "banality of evil" to convey the notion that evil frequently happens not at the hands of extremists, but is enacted by everyday people, "just like us," who believe they are doing what must be done, who accept the misguided premises on which unquestioned ideas are often based. In an important sense, it is the banality of evil, rather than the overt displays of racism and intolerance, that is equally, if not more, dangerous to the country and the values it professes.
This is not to say that every individual who opposes immigration is a white supremacist. It is to suggest that powerful ideas about culture, national identity, and race have historically been intertwined in disturbing ways, which have permitted practices we as a nation now regret. Add to these, today's widespread (though factually inaccurate) narratives about security and crime and we have a situation that gives racism many places to hide.
Roxanne Lynn Doty is a professor at Arizona State University and lives in the "epicenter of the anti-immigrant movement." She is the author of The Law Into Their Own Hands (University of Arizona Press, 2009).