Immigration Fight at the AZ Corral

Arizona is in the grip of anti-immigrant fever. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose popularity has been built on his tough enforcement tactics and willingness to defy the federal government, is on the verge of a run for governor. Even if he doesn’t run, the state has a controversial new law, SB 1070, that requires police to determine the status of anyone if there is a "reasonable suspicion" they are in the U.S. illegally—and arrest them if documents can’t be produced. Hiring day laborers off the street has also become a crime.

Supporters see the law as an anti-crime measure and part of a larger campaign to secure the border. Opponents call it racial profiling and claim it is unconstitutional.

Governor Jan Brewer, the Republican who replaced Janet Napolitano when she became Obama’s Homeland Security chief, waited as long as possible before taking a position on SB 1070. Caught between a conservative primary challenge and the prospect of her state becoming the target of a Latino-led boycott, she issued a border security plan of her own, including increased surveillance, redirecting stimulus money to local law enforcement, and a request to President Obama for more National Guard border support. Then, on April 23, as large crowds protested in Phoenix and Tucson, Brewer signed the bill. Arguing that she was responding to a crisis, she linked her decision to the drug war.

Latino members of Congress had urged Brewer to veto. "When you institutionalize a law like this one, you are targeting and discriminating at a wholesale level against a group of people," Representative Raul Grijalva said. More than 50,000 people signed petitions opposing the law and about 2,500 students from high schools across Phoenix walked out of school and marched to the Capitol. Nine college students were arrested for chaining themselves to the Capitol building doors to pressure the governor.

Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley calls it an unfounded mandate that is "tearing the community apart" and pledges that, despite the law’s thrust, he will focus on organized crime syndicates engaged in human smuggling.

Tourism and business leaders worry that the law will discourage visitors and economic development, comparing it to what happened when another Arizona governor rescinded recognition of Martin Luther King Day as a holiday in 1987. At least $300 million in income was lost and the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Phoenix. Eventually, voters approved the holiday.

Despite the social and economic dangers, Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain supported the law, but have also unveiled their own 10-point plan, including deploying 3,000 National Guard to the border, 24/7 monitoring by aerial vehicles, permanent addition of 3,000 Custom and Border Protection agents, and the completion of 700 miles of fencing.

The Arizona legislation "is exactly why the federal government must act on immigration reform," argues state Democratic leader Jorge Luis Garcia. "We cannot have states creating a jigsaw puzzle of immigration laws. This bill opens the door to racial profiling with the provision that allows an officer to ask for citizenship papers from someone who only looks illegal." The Arizona law also plays into the "state’s rights" thrust of the current anti-federal government surge.

When Napolitano was governor, she vetoed similar bills. She was relatively tough on immigration, especially on businesses that hired undocumented people, imposing what she called a "business death penalty"—basically taking away licenses from those violating an employer sanctions law. However, she opposed punishing immigrants who were already here and didn’t think much of a border fence: "You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder." Things have changed since she left.

Dangerous Tactics

Anti-immigrant sentiment is a persistent theme in U.S. politics. In 1996, for example, when then-California Governor Pete Wilson announced that undocumented pregnant women should be denied prenatal care, his underlying message was clear and brutal: "If you’re ‘illegal,’ get out of our country." Wilson’s statement came at another dangerous time, one marked by resurgent racism, increased police brutality, vigilante violence, and rationalization of virtually any attack.

In the early 1980s, low intensity conflict (LIC) theorists constructed a Los Angeles insurrection scenario requiring a military response and sealing the nearby border. A decade later, the Border Patrol played a key role in the LA riots of 1992—deploying troops to Latino communities and arresting more than 1,000 people. Afterward, the INS began working with the Pentagon’s Center for Low-Intensity Conflict and the line between civilian and military operations was largely erased.

Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response to such treatment, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards.

After 9/11, the federal government considered placing U.S. soldiers along the Mexican border. Efforts to curtail immigration through tighter security have done little but redirect the flow into the most desolate areas of the border, increasing the mortality rate of those crossing. Between 1998 and 2004, at least 1,900 people died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In recent years, Arizona has become the main entry point into the U.S. An estimated 460,000 live in the state, but the total has dropped by at least 100,000 since 2008.

During the last 5 years, around 200 people have died annually along the Arizona border in wilderness areas, according to medical-examiner data compiled by the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu charges that "numerous" officers have been killed by illegal immigrants and that the violence has reached "epidemic proportions." Although it’s true violence has risen, the main spikes in crime have been in home invasions and kidnapping, both of which are linked to the drug war and organized crime based in Mexico.

Anti-immigrant activists deny charges of racism, but the facts tell a different story. Almost unlimited numbers of immigrants from mostly white, European countries are allowed into the U.S., while Latin Americans and Africans rarely get tourist visas. Although sweatshops that employ undocumented workers are condemned, they aren’t often shut down, but merely raided, resulting in deportations. The owners may be fined, but they still come out ahead as deported workers can’t collect back wages.

The Arizona law makes police go after anyone whose look or dress is "suspicious," yet does little to toughen the employer sanctions legislation passed in 2007, which gave authorities the power to suspend or revoke business licenses of employers caught knowingly hiring illegal workers. It required businesses to use E-Verify to check the work eligibility of new employees. Since then, only two cases have been settled in which the employers admitted guilt.

Border Wars

More than 150 years ago, at the end of the war between Mexico and the U.S., the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Many Latinos still feel that the treaty, accepted under pressure by a corrupt dictator, was an act of theft violating international law. Mexico surrendered half its territory—now the Southwestern United States—and most of the Mexicans who stayed in the ceded region ultimately lost their lands. In a sense, that war never ended. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, U.S. officials, working closely with white settlers and elites, often used violent means to subdue Mexicans in the region.

Once the region was "pacified," border enforcement became a tool to regulate the flow of labor into the U.S. With the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, the Border Patrol emerged as gatekeeper of a "revolving door," sometimes processing immigrant labor, sometimes cracking down. The Bracero Program, which brought in Mexican agricultural laborers, was followed (and overlapped) by Operation Wetback, an INS-run military offensive against immigrant workers.

During recent decades, government strategies for combating undocumented immigration and drug trafficking have re-militarized the region. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meshed with more obvious aspects of LIC doctrine. The definition of immigration and drug trafficking as "national security" issues has brought state-of-the-art military approaches into domestic affairs. But just as the projection of a "communist menace" was a smokescreen for post-war expansionism, a "brown wave," the "drug war," and "terrorism" have been used as pretexts for military-industrial penetration.

LIC doctrine uses diverse tactics—from the subtle and psychological ("winning hearts and minds") to the obvious and brutal. Such flexibility requires the most sophisticated tools available and the integration of police, paramilitary, and military forces. It also requires a plausible "enemy," in this case, immigrants who can be accused of almost anything and abused with impunity. In this kind of war, battles are waged everywhere, even in communities far from a frontier. This blurs the line between police and the military and further threatens basic rights.

Future Shock

According to Census Bureau predictions, Latinos will soon be the largest minority group in the U.S.—at least 44 million (or 15 percent of the nation’s population). Although the biggest expansion will occur in states that draw the most immigrants—California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey—the spill-over will reach from Atlanta to Minneapolis and Washington State. California is expected to be at least 50 percent Latino by 2040. Overall, immigration is fueling U.S. population growth and the Census Bureau predicts a tripling of the Hispanic and Asian populations in less than 50 years. While the number of whites may increase by 7 percent, the 3 largest minorities—Hispanic, Black, and Asian—are expected to rise by 188, 71, and 213 percent respectively, making them at least 47 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050. While such forecasts have much to do with the current anti-immigrant hysteria, the trend won’t be reversed by race-motivated legislation.

According to Senator Russell Pearce, architect of the plan, the idea is to wipe out the "sanctuary policies of cities." He says that politicians and others have handcuffed the police, keeping them from finding and arresting those in this country illegally. State action is necessary, he adds, because of political failure in Washington.

Democratic Senator Rebecca Rios agrees that the federal government hasn’t done enough to secure the border, but doesn’t think this is the answer. "This bill does nothing to address human smuggling, the drug cartels, the arms smuggling," she says. "It creates a lot of negative effects that none of us here want," she adds. "And, yes, I believe it will create somewhat of a police state."

In addition to pushing through a roundup of "illegals" by any means necessary, Arizona lawmakers are considering legislation that would require any future presidential candidate to produce a U.S. birth certificate—a nod to those who think Obama isn’t a citizen. The governor has already signed a law letting people carry concealed weapons without a permit and another saying that federal laws don’t apply to weapons and ammunition manufactured in Arizona. The picture emerging is of a state that’s armed and paranoid, hostile to federal oversight, and suspicious of anyone who looks or talks like an outsider.

The immigration law, along with other recent legislation, support for the "birther" movement, and the statement by J.D. Hayworth, who is challenging McCain, that same-sex marriage laws would lead to men marrying horses is causing many people to ask: "What’s wrong with Arizona?"

In some respects, its situation is unique. Combined with its proximity to the border, there is the enormous growth of Phoenix, the arrival of many transplants from Eastern cities and California, and a general disinterest in politics that has let things careen out of control. Turnout is low for primary election, and the legislature is more conservative than the general public. This has created an opening for figures like Pearce, who has associated with Nazis, and for Hayworth and Arpaio, who have become influential political allies.

Arizona represents an extreme manifestation of the anger and reactionary sentiments roiling across the country. For them the U.S. is hot dogs and apple pie and they have no desire to change their diets. They want "their country" back, with Sheriff Arpaio as an immigrant-hunting Wyatt Earp, plus a tough new law on the books.


Greg Guma is an author, editor, and former executive director of Pacifica Radio. In the mid-1990s he headed the leading immigrant legal services group in New Mexico. He currently lives in Arizona and writes about politics on his blog, Maverick Media.