The War in Arizona

Southern Arizona has become a war zone. The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others at a Tucson shopping center in January spotlighted this to the nation. Sad to say, for those of us living in Tucson, it was a shock, but not unexpected. My friend Al Perry, a long-time Tucson musician, summed up what many of us are feeling: "I am so terrified and disgusted right now. First the initial tragedy. Then it's knowing her personally, like almost everyone in this town. And now it's the hate talk that hasn't abated, but been ratcheted up a few notches. All this talk about 'free speech' and the 'Second Amendment' from those who understand neither. I am sickened by what's going on."


The massacre that killed six persons, including a nine-year-old girl, did not take place in a vacuum, but rather within a context of political polarization and violence fueled by vitriolic rhetoric centered around, but not limited to, invectives against undocumented workers.


A "security state" mentality has led state government to prioritize the struggle against alleged threats from the undocumented over funding for basic social services and programs designed to meet human needs. Laws such as SB1070 criminalized undocumented workers, resulting in huge caseloads in courts and jail time for a new and growing population of immigrant prisoners. This, in turn, means handsome returns for private for-profit prisons. No wonder SB1070 was authored by persons closely connected to Arizona's private prison complex and that public health services, which could have diverted Loughner from his destructive path, were not available.


Giffords is not a left-leaning Democrat. She voted for Iraq war funding, opposed an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, and called for more border militarization. However, she opposed Arizona's anti-immigrant SB1070, supported immigration and health-care reform, and was a proponent of abortion rights. This earned the ire of some, evidenced by the now infamous map on Sarah Palin's website with a gun-sight over Gifford's district.


It is a mistake to try and divorce the actions of the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, from this climate. Most of the publicly available emails, YouTube posts, and notes that Loughner left behind are barely comprehensible. Still, according to a leaked Homeland Security memo, he had affinities with such groups as the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic American Renaissance Group. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center writes that, "At this early stage, I think Loughner is probably best described as a mentally ill or unstable person who was influenced by the rhetoric and demonizing propaganda around him…. Ideology may not explain why he allegedly killed, but it could help explain how he selected his target."


Loughner's state of mind was not unknown. He had five run-ins with law enforcement, was banned from the Pima County Community College until he had clearance from mental health professionals, and one of his classmates had written fearfully about Loughner's potential for violence. But Arizona is near or at the bottom in every area of mental health services, services that are often not available for those most in need of them. Certainly those legislators who have all but dismantled the state's mental health system bear some responsibility for the events of January 8.


Political Dimensions


If one truly wants to make some sense of what seems so senseless, one needs to know something of the history of violence that has preceded it. Since 2000, more than 2,100 persons have died crossing the Arizona/Mexican border. Along the entire U.S./Mexico border, according to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, 6,607 undocumented workers have perished since 1994—the year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. Last year, 256 persons died crossing the Arizona borderlands, up 53 over the previous year. This was the highest number in five years and the second highest since 2000. The dead are victims of free trade and neoliberal economic policies that have destroyed rural communities, causing a virtual forced march to the U.S. and maquiladora sweatshops in a hunt for jobs. They are victims of border militarization that funnels undocumented workers into the harshest areas of the desert where death is a constant risk due to exposure and lack of water. And there are other victims as well.


On January 3, a 14-year-old boy, Ramses Barrón Torres, was killed in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico by a shot fired by a Border Patrol agent in Nogales, Arizona. Forensic evidence indicates he was shot while his back was turned. The bullet entered through the back of his arm and into his chest.


On December 15, 2010, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry became another victim of this "war," killed in a firefight with gangs that prey on border crossers.


On March 27, 2010, Robert Krentz was killed on his ranch near the border. Krentz, known as a man who would give aid to anyone in need, had said about undocumented workers, "You know, if they come in and ask for water, I'll still give them water. That's just my nature."


The main author of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB1070 law, state Senator Russell Pearce, seized on the occasion of Krentz's murder to declare that it was committed by "illegal alien drug smugglers." Pearce is known for his friendship with neo-Nazi leader J.T. Ready and has even circulated emails from the Neo-Nazi National Alliance. These associations apparently haven't hurt his political career as he was recently elected president of the Arizona Senate.


Pearce's refrain about the murder of Krentz was echoed repeatedly by major media outlets. However, two months later, the Arizona Daily Star published a report that the main suspect in the murder was someone from the United States. Now even that statement has been retracted and authorities are saying they simply do not know where the assailant came from.


Nevertheless, anger over Krentz's murder fueled quick passage of SB1070 and prompted President Obama to send 1,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexico Border—although Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) had asked for 6,000.


On April 15, the day the state legislature passed SB1070, Immigration and Customs Enforcement undertook the largest raid in its history in majority Chicano and Mexicano South Tucson, with 800 agents from every level of enforcement, federal to local. The city was assaulted with a military-style raid, with streets shut down by heavily armed officers and support helicopters flying overhead. People were stopped and pulled out of vans simply because they fit the profile of possibly undocumented immigrants. Passenger vans were confiscated as "evidence" from small businesses which were in full compliance with the law, operating transportation services between Nogales and Tucson.


The timing of that raid seemed almost a federal endorsement of the intent of SB1070, which would require that non-federal immigration law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act already paves the way for this to happen. SB1070 is just a more extreme version.


A little less than a year before the Krentz murder, on May 30, 2009, Shawna Forde and her companions, Jason Bush and Albert Gaxiola, posed as law enforcement officers, entered the house of Raul Flores to rob him in order to fund the Minutemen organization led by Forde. They then murdered both Flores and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia, whose mother was also wounded. That incident, however, led to no outcry for related legislation, no demands for increased protection against paramilitaries, and no subsequent actions from federal, state, and local police agents.


Mecca of Prejudice


According to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, "We have become the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. Unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital."


But Arizona has not always been like this, especially not in Tucson. Incidents of violence and anti-immigrant bias rose considerably following the passage of NAFTA. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the United States, "Between 1993 and 2002, NAFTA resulted in an increase in exports that created 794,194 jobs, but it displaced production that would have supported 1,673,454 jobs. Thus, the combined effect of changes in imports and exports as a result of NAFTA was a loss of 879,280 U.S. jobs."


Between 1990 and 2004, the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. tripled. With the passage of NAFTA, by 2002, 1.3 million farming jobs had been lost in Mexico and immigration of all kinds to the U.S. from Mexico rose 60 percent. NAFTA led to a 240 percent increase in exports of corn from the U.S. to Mexico, while the prices paid to Mexican farmers for corn fell by more than 70 percent.


But rather than address the core reason for the loss of jobs on both sides of the border, the rhetoric of hate and the politics of polarization have been used to advance the idea that undocumented workers from Mexico are to blame for economic hard times in the U.S. And this has added fuel to the fire of increased political violence and literal casualties of war along our borders.


However, in U.S. border areas, despite the rhetoric, crime rates are actually down, including for violent crimes. (Of course, the thousands of migrants dying in the desert are not counted as crime victims.) It has also been shown that, throughout the nation, where there are high concentrations of immigrant communities, crime rates are also lower than average. Yet lies and misinformation abound and are given as reasons for more militarization and criminalization. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, for instance, has made unsubstantiated claims that headless bodies left by "illegals" and drug traffickers have been found on the Arizona side of the border. But when challenged to give documentation, she can produce none.


Protesting Anti-Immigrant Actions


The night before the massacre, I was at the birthday of a local immigrant rights activist and head of the local Veterans for Peace. In the early morning hours, there were a small number of us, people from the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a woman who works with Latina victims of domestic violence, people from the Catholic Worker House and soup kitchen, a teacher in one of the few surviving bilingual public schools, staff and volunteers from the organization I work for, the Alliance for Global Justice—some of us musicians, some artists. It was an animated bunch. We talked about how great it was that we were able to beat back well-funded campaigns against Grijalva and Giffords.


We talked about the struggle to defend against attacks on ethnic education—a program that produces a far higher rate of high school graduates than the rate for students who don't take these classes. We talked about an upcoming demonstration against the wars, and how we have to educate the rest of the country about how there is a war going on here, too. We had a wonderful time and went home and went to sleep.


On Saturday morning, we woke up to the news of the attack on Giffords and others attending her "Congress on Your Corner" event. Around the same time, we heard about an incident of vandalism at the César Chávez Building on the University of Arizona campus—supposedly unrelated events.


We were saddened, but not surprised. Some of us, like Derechos Humanos founder Isabel Garcia, had received numerous death threats in the past. In fact, one group of anti-immigrant activists printed T-shirts with Isabel's picture in a gun-sight. Recently, a death threat was sent to the Derechos Humanos office that threatened its members and claimed to have paid $500,000 for Isabel's murder. Law enforcement, including the FBI, were notified several times, but there has been no follow-up investigation. We've seen anti-immigrant paramilitary members come to our rallies carrying guns. During the electoral campaigns, the offices of both Grijalva and Giffords were vandalized and one man was arrested with a gun at a Giffords campaign rally.


Many of us who were gathered at the party on Friday, January 7 were also at a press conference at the Arizona state building on January 10 to announce our opposition to a new attempt by states to take away the Fourteenth Amendment right of citizenship for babies born in the U.S. to undocumented workers. (Yes, now even babies are in the crosshairs of anti-immigrant sentiment.) However, despite the particular subject of the event, none of us could help but speak about Saturday's shootings. Isabel talked of her own friendship with Giffords and said, "We've never preached hate. Our message has always been a message of love."


We can end this war in Arizona and elsewhere. Let's start by getting rid of NAFTA, by tearing down the border wall, by demilitarizing our border lands and decriminalizing workers, and by offering real immigration reform. Let's start by stopping this racist, violence-breeding hate.


James Patrick Jordan is national co-coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice.