Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arizona is the testing ground

June 10, 2010

Isabel García is a longtime immigrant rights activist, a defense attorney and co-chair of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based grassroots organization dedicated to defending the human and civil rights of migrants and citizens alike.

During the weekend of the national day of action against SB 1070--on the eve of a 50,000-strong march in Phoenix, she spoke with Eric Ruder about how to understand SB 1070, Arizona's new racial profiling law, and the historical and social context that produced it.


UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS and anyone with brown skin were already under assault in Arizona, so why is the political establishment pushing for SB 1070?

YOU'VE GOT to remember that SB 1070 is a culmination point. It is the crown jewel in order to launch new and different attacks. But let's not talk about the new attacks that are coming forward now because of SB 1070--let's talk about why SB 1070 occurred. I believe that SB 1070 occurred because Arizona was intentionally selected as a target. This is exactly what the right wanted.

Many people say, "Well, aren't Arizona politicians doing this because the federal government has failed to act in order to address the problem at the border?" But in truth, it's the exact opposite.

The federal government has acted--by funneling all the migrants through the state of Arizona with its Operation Gatekeeper that closed up the traditional crossing areas for 100 years. Arizona then became fertile ground for all of this to take root.

In Arizona, the federal government owns nearly all of the borderlands, unlike in Texas. Texas, like Arizona, is a very conservative state, but as soon as Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff started building walls there, the communities came unglued. There were lawsuits by white and brown and black alike. They knew that wouldn't happen in Arizona.

Knowing that the chaos and division at the border wouldn't result in the kind of fightback that it did in Texas, they weren't going to pick any other state.

Plus, in the last 10 years, we were the number-one growing state, and not because of migrants, but because of the influx of retirees--which means, of course, more conservative people.

Since 1994, U.S. border enforcement efforts have destroyed the wilderness out there, but what's more, the division and chaos have given hate groups a foothold here and poisoned the media. Everybody's been complicit.

In 1996, the media replayed video of Mexicans jumping over the border wall every single night, helping to stir up fears. The hate groups went unchecked. They committed all kinds of atrocities. They've threatened my life, they've threatened many lives, and not one thing has really happened to them.

With this fear in the air, the moment was ripe for electing anti-immigrant folks. Arizonans elected Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County; Tom Horne, the anti-immigrant superintendent of public instruction; Richard Romley, the anti-immigrant county attorney of Maricopa County; and the entire gang that surrounds State Sen. Russell Pearce, who was the sponsor of SB 1070.

They were all elected on an anti-immigrant platform. They didn't run on platforms to improve education or prosecute criminals more effectively. They ran on anti-immigrant platforms.

There are several anti-immigrant laws that form the immediate legal context for SB 1070: the toughest employer sanctions in the country; a charge of "aggravated identity theft," which is a class 4 felony, for anybody using a made-up Social Security number to gain work; a state smuggling statute, even though the Feds have a federal smuggling statute.

The smuggling statute should have been challenged and struck down on the constitutional basis that federal laws preempt state laws, but without political pressure, this didn't happen. It boggles the mind, really. How could a state have an anti-smuggling law challenging smuggling from another country into the state?

So we have an anti-smuggling statute, and it doesn't even target the smugglers. They arrest the people who are being smuggled. They get them to admit, "Yeah, I was going to pay a coyote [the human smugglers who help border crossers for a price] another $2,000 when I got to Phoenix." Once you admit that, you are considered a smuggler yourself, because it's conspiracy to commit smuggling.

In 2004, voters approved a ballot measure that tried to deny public services--like California's Proposition 187 did--but the courts limited its reach. Still, it impacted all of us because now, in order to vote, we have to show proof of citizenship. We are the first state ever in the history of the U.S. to demand proof of citizenship in order to vote.

The politicians know full well that there is no evidence of even one undocumented immigrant voting. So that tells you that the purpose of the law is to target us, Latino citizens and voters, so we don't vote. And also, again, to stir up the idea that our system--economic and political--is being taken advantage of by undocumented workers.

Then in 2006, voters overwhelmingly approved four anti-immigrant measures. Two of them violate the U.S. Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment guarantees bail and sits at the base of our concept of "innocent until proven guilty." This is a good theory, and what gives it life is the idea that you're out and about until you have a trial by a jury of your peers to determine whether you are guilty or not. That's innocent until proven guilty. Arizona's Proposition 100 eliminated bail for anybody who is undocumented and charged with a crime. In other words, the accusation of criminal conduct is sufficient to deny bail, so "innocent until proven guilty" is turned on its head.

We also violated the Constitution by passing Proposition 102, which bars undocumented from being able to obtain punitive damages in any court.

If a wooden beam falls on me on a construction site as a result of negligence or other criminal conduct, not only do I get my medical bills paid for, but I am also paid for what I lost at work. Together, those are called compensatory damages. But if my lawyer finds out that the producer of these beams has done this in 25 states, that's what sets the stage for punitive damages, which are intended to punish the wrongdoer as a deterrent to future violations.

Now, were immigrants suing for tort? Absolutely not! I personally know many undocumented immigrants who have been injured and refused to make any claim--not workers compensation or anything.

Also in 2006, voters passed Proposition 300, which eliminates in-state tuition for undocumented workers, even for kids born, raised and educated here, who want to go to college. The same proposition eliminated any adult education, including English classes, for parents. And finally, there was Proposition 103 that declared English the state's official language.

This set of laws has poisoned the atmosphere, and so is it so surprising that four years later SB 1070 is passed? Absolutely not. This is what they've wanted all along. They knew that passage of this bill would not only give them the tools to really clamp down on all of us, but further poison the whole social structure.

What's more, 1070 is not supposed to go into effect until July 29, but we already have dozens and dozens and dozens of calls about this law already being implemented--not only by law enforcement agencies, but also by regular people at the gym or the supermarket talking about the "wetbacks" and "it's about time."

These themes have entered the social discourse here, and to our detriment. Arizona has become the laboratory. And the idea is to export all of these measures after they've been tested here. That's why the Department of Homeland Security gave the University of Arizona $16.5 million to fund the National Center for Border Security and Immigration from 2007 to 2013.

RACIAL PROFILING at checkpoints along roads near the border has been standard operating procedure for some time now. Is SB 1070 aimed at bringing this kind of harassment and intimidation into the state's urban areas?

ABSOLUTELY. THE intention is to take it into the interior.

Remember, we have been saying that the purpose of all of this, beginning back in 1994, was to take it beyond the border. In December 2006, Julie Meyers, then head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, carried out the first massive raids at the Swift meatpacking plants in Denver. Since then, they've carried out raids in Laurel, Miss., and Postville, Iowa, but the first one was there.

What were her first words at the press conference? "This is to signal that enforcement will not remain at the border," she said.

We have been saying all this since 1994, and if you unearth and read their documents, they knew that this was what they wanted, but they lied to the American public. For 15 years, activists have been talking about this, but it really hasn't been in the public discourse. The fact that it doesn't take root is a whole other issue that has to do with our own immigrant rights organizations stabbing us in the back because they have conceded enforcement.

All these immigrant rights groups are getting millions and millions of dollars in foundation monies, but what has it accomplished? They have merely helped the authorities to carry out this massive repression on all of us. Imagine that--our own side has agreed to this!

And they demonized Derechos Humanos and others who agree with us when we were opposing the STRIVE Act of 2007, with its restrictions on a path to citizenship, guest-worker program and border militarization provisions.

These groups were really kissing up to politicians and unions and foundations, and they hid their involvement. And now we're demanding accountability. Because now, they are all on the same bandwagon, saying, "Oh, let's stop the militarization of the border."

But all along, they've been saying, "We have to have smart enforcement, Isabel, we have to have enforcement, Isabel, otherwise we'll never get legalization." We've been having the same discussion for five years, and we've spent millions of dollars. Have we gotten one single visa out of this? Nothing.

The American public is still as ignorant as ever. The polls show support for SB 1070, even though they are worded to produce that result. But even if you stated all the facts, and then you ask the American public, "Do you still believe we should have a crackdown?" they would say yes. Because they have been fed lies for all these years.

It's not just the white community. In November 2006, about 47 percent of Hispanic voters also voted for those four anti-immigrant measures, which shows you the real need for a focus on political education.

ON THE other hand, the polls also tend to show a generation gap. When you talk about people under 30, there's an openness toward people from other countries, people from Mexico and all over the world. It's quite stark how set the older generations is in its beliefs.

AND IT'S amazing that they're so nativist against their neighbor, while they are giving a pass to Wall Street and Big Oil. They've allowed themselves to be pitted against each other instead of really looking at who are the real culprits.

But the generational aspect I think is absolutely true, and thank goodness for that, because our young people now have grown up, not only in a more diverse situation, but in a global society. They have become aware that what happens in Africa will affect us here. They know that global climate change is going to impact all of us.

It's the only thing that gives me hope really--especially if young people, college-age and other students, decide to listen to immigrant youth. If they come together with the immigrant youth, nothing can stop us from achieving more justice than we are seeing, both at the border as well as in sending countries, because nobody wants to talk about that either.

The response of all these national organizations to anything that happens at the border--the deaths at the border, the shootings at the border--is to say, "Oh, that's why we need comprehensive immigration reform."

But that won't solve the problem. Because migrants leave Mexico because of the devastation of Mexico's agriculture sector. Six million corn farmers can't make a living anymore because NAFTA allowed U.S. agribusiness--with its billions of dollars in U.S. government subsidies--to run poor Mexican corn farmers out of business.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez, when he was about to submit his immigration reform bill, held a conference call to discuss it, and on his very first phone call, they didn't allow me to ask this question: "Even if your program allowed for the legalization of all undocumented people here--12 million, 13 million, however many there are--will the deaths continue at the border?"

It's easy to see why they refused to take my question, because the answer is, of course, yes. Again, we see Democrats and Republicans upping the ante to see who can be more anti-immigrant than the other, which is what is behind this stupid REPAIR bill that Schumer and Feinstein have now drawn up.

APPARENTLY, ATTORNEY General Eric Holder has met with several police chiefs who are not so keen about SB 1070. What do you think the prospects are for a legal challenge by the Department of Justice (DOJ) against SB 1070?

WHO KNOWS if it will be a DOJ lawsuit, MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] and the ACLU, or someone else, but there will be movement. Unfortunately, I think that even if they decide to do what we are asking them to--to not cooperate, not to take anybody into custody, not help them determine the lawful status of a person--even if they did all of that, guess what they're going to do?

The Obama administration has already announced that it's sending 1,200 new National Guard troops and another half billion dollars. Where will this get us? Already, in mid-April, the Obama administration carried out a massive raid of our communities here. It was unprecedented.

More than 800 agents from several law enforcement agencies--U.S. Marshals, DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], Pima County sheriffs, Maricopa County sheriffs, the Tucson police department--were involved. Their pretext was arresting smugglers? Give me a break.

Not only do I believe they did it to scare our community into accepting whatever it is that they say, but more importantly, I think that was an example of an operation that they want to do across the country.

How do you best institute collaboration federal, state and local of law enforcement? You stage an exercise, a joint operation. Again, Arizona is the testing ground.

WHAT DOES the movement need to do?

OUR MOVEMENT needs to wake up and start with the fundamentals. And that means telling the truth. We can no longer accept politicians and other national immigrant rights organizations feeding us the same bunk. We can't allow them to continue to say, "Yes, we need security, but give us legalization."

What we need to do is demand a total reframing of the issue. We need to say immigration has nothing to do with national security or law enforcement. It is a social, political and economic phenomenon.

We know why people are migrating. Why did 6 million people leave Mexico since 1994? We began building walls way back then, seven years before any terrorist attack, but now people think we are building the walls because of that. But we built walls and passed NAFTA in the very same year.

We knew full well that workers were going to flee to escape sheer poverty. When are we going to have that discussion? How dare anybody tell us, "Oh, we need to stop the flow of immigrants at the border." Then you should get up to Congress immediately and start talking about what we are going to do to address the root cause immediately. How are we going to undo NAFTA?

How are we going to undo the drug war? We are creating a national security situation in Mexico, and I believe we are going to have hundreds and thousands of political refugees. And then we pretend we had nothing to do with it--that's it's all these migrants, it's stupid, corrupt, violent Mexico, and that the U.S. has nothing to do with it. It's maddening.

This country is filled with people ignorant of the history of migration and immigration policy. That's why anything that is racist like, "What don't you get about illegal?" has an immediate appeal--because we're talking about years and years of conditioning a public to respond to that.

Because we are living in an ocean of not only fear but ignorance, it's difficult for our slogan of "No human being is illegal" to catch on. We've not been able to provide the background information in the media, which they own and which respects their interests more than ours.

In Texas, they are changing textbooks, as if they don't already distort U.S. history. Now they are excluding even more references to the struggles of brown, Indian and Black people. That's the same here with this piece of legislation.

We are in terrible shape, and until we take that challenge--to really become educated and then be able to educate the public--it does us no good to pat ourselves on the back and say, "Yeah, we got out the vote." What vote? The voters who voted on the propositions in 2006?

There is so much ignorance, fear and outright lies about immigration. It's truly a concerted effort to hide the truth from us. Look at SB 2281, the Arizona bill banning ethnic studies. That's exactly what it is--they don't want the American public to know the truth.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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