Arizonans React to New Immigration Law

On April 23 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law what is being billed as the "broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations." The law requires Arizona police to ask people for documentation based on a "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country "unlawfully," it targets day laborers and their employers, and sets up trespassing charges for those in the state without correct immigration papers, for which they could face jail time. This harsh new law has not only ignited condemnation inside and outside of the United States, but also in Arizona where many have taken to the streets in protest.

Rachel Winch

On April 15, armed federal agents, some in black ski masks, set up checkpoints in the largely Latino neighborhood of South Tucson. The ICE and DEA agents carrying out Operation in Plain Sight, billed as the largest operation against human-smuggling networks, raided commercial transportation companies, sparking a panic in the community just two days after the Arizona legislature passed what The New York Times has described as the “broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations.”

Perhaps this is a preview for what’s to come in Arizona, now that Governor Janet Brewer has signed into law the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, better known as SB1070. Arizona police will be required to ask people whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” are in the country “unlawfully” to provide their documentation and, without a warrant, arrest them if they cannot prove their legal status.

Although the bill states that authorities will not “investigate complaints that are based solely on race, color or national origin,” the governor herself could not identify what, beyond having brown skin and speaking Spanish, constitutes reasonable suspicion. “I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like,” she explained. “I can tell you that there are people in Arizona who assume they know what an illegal immigrant looks like.”

The law particularly targets day laborers and their employers by making it illegal “to attempt to hire or hire and pick up passengers for work . . . if the motor vehicle blocks or impedes the normal flow of traffic,” and for people who are undocumented to “solicit work in a public place.”

If Arizona companies lose a significant part of their workforce because of this mandated crackdown on undocumented workers, they could fill the void with the same migrant population, only this time wearing orange jumpsuits. According to SB1070, undocumented immigrants “present on any public or private land” are not only in the United States without authorization but are legally trespassing, for which they can be charged and face jail time before being deported. This legal innovation makes it possible that this new class of “trespassers” will join the already strong prisoner workforce in Arizona.

Other sections of the law declare that anyone transporting someone undocumented, even driving a family member to work or school, can be charged with “smuggling of human beings.” Furthermore, the bill prohibits agencies, counties, cities, or towns from granting sanctuary to undocumented people by prohibiting such entities from “adopt[ing] a policy that limits or restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

While Brewer has framed SB1070 as “another step forward in protecting the state of Arizona,” it is responding to the fear of some Arizonans by instilling fear in others. “Folks were already afraid to go to work or to put their kids on the bus to school because of the raids and anti-immigrant policies," said Caroline Isaacs of American Friends Service Committee, a national organization that organizes for immigrant rights, “but this has really ratcheted up the fear.”

A 23-year-old college student in Tucson who has been living in Arizona for almost a decade without documents said her family is becoming afraid to go out. "We are afraid that we are going to be asked for our documents,” said the student, who preferred not to give her name. “Everyone here, my mom, my aunts, we just started to cry when we saw Brewer sign the law. We felt so hopeless. It does not seem like we are in the 21st century anymore.”

Despite fear felt among many undocumented, as well as documented and U.S. citizen Latinos, all who represent a significant percentage of Arizona’s population, opponents of the bill publicly voiced their opposition all week to pressure Brewer not to sign it into law. Groups gathered daily for public demonstrations, and on April 23 when word spread that the bill was about to be signed, high school students in Tucson walked out of classes and joined a protest outside of the State Building. The youth quickly outnumbered the adults present and the impassioned chants of “Sí, se puede!” filled the streets for hours. Tucson High was put on lock-down to prevent any more students from walking out.

Some who support the bill claim that it “takes the handcuffs off from law enforcement” to enforce already existing immigration laws. Despite the fact that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the “largest uniformed law enforcement organization” in the country with over 30,000 trained officers, and 58,000 total employees, a perceived lack of enforcement has spawned citizen patrol groups who claim to be taking the law, and immigration enforcement, into their own hands.

Al Garza, founder of the Patriots Coalition, an organization that says it educates people about the adverse affects of “illegal immigration,” told me on his way back from patrolling the desert in search of undocumented migrants to detain, “I love SB1070. It’s real simple. If we’re going to be a nation of laws, then we better apply the law. We’ve been pleading with the federal government for decades but they refuse to secure the border and refuse to prosecute people hiring illegals. After exhausting all available options, SB1070 offers some relief and hopefully some form of tranquility through our state and nation.”

Although there are stark differences in opinion, Brewer, during the press conference when she signed the bill expressed one sentiment that people from all sides of the issue agree on: “We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act. But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”

Bill Odle, like many people who live directly on the border, recognizes the problems of the border situation, including migrant deaths in the desert and a security risk for people living in isolated areas with traffic of both migrants and drugs. Despite his call to make the border safer, Odle says that instead of SB1070, “A better solution would be to allow people to come into the country legally and get IDed so we know who they are and what they are doing.”

Many contend that a renegotiation or repeal of the 1994 NAFTA free trade agreement would curb immigration much more than any punitive law. NAFTA, among other things, has driven millions of small Mexican farmers north after not being able to compete with U.S. subsidized corn. Isabel Garcia, cofounder of a Tucson-based Human Rights Coalition explained in a recent interview: “That’s why they began to build walls in 1994. They didn’t build the walls, as some people would believe, on September the 12th of 2001. We began building those walls in 1994.”

Despite these multiple concerns about the bill coming from diverse members of the Arizona community, on April 26 Brewer did not mention immigration nor SB1070 in her entire 15-minute prepared speech when addressing a crowd gathered for an invite-only “town hall” meeting in Tucson. It was only when the space was given to ask questions that the topic was brought up as nearly every question was related to the bill.

Outside protestors, many representing immigration rights groups not invited inside, held signs that read, “No Jan Crow Laws,” “Little Church Ladies Oppose SB1070,” and “Do I Look ILLEGAL to You?,” among others. One person had drawn a map of the Southwest United States, and written “POLICE” in bold, red lettering in the place of the Arizona state name.

It is not only the protesters that call the law racist. Mexico has issued an official advisory to its citizens about travel to Arizona and the Organization of American States has called the law “discriminatory and unacceptable.” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has been leading a call to boycott the state. He is joined by, among others California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, Oscar Martin Arce, a lawmaker from Mexico’s National Action Party, and Zach de La Rocha from the musical group Rage Against the Machine.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) are already looking to repeal the law, and based on prior cases and the ways in which the law violates the Constitution, expect success in having it overturned before it would take effect in early August, 90 days after the adjournment of the state legislature.

In addition to the fear, anger, and sadness, some in Arizona are downright ashamed that this law has been passed in their state. David Hill, 36, from Tucson expressed concisely on his handmade, cardboard sign outside the State Building this week, “This is Really, Really Embarrassing.”

Rachel Winch lives in Tucson, Arizona where she works on border and immigration issues.


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