Are Latino Immigrants a 21st Century Invasion or the Latest Economic Scapegoat? After just a few days in Arizona, it's become abundantly clear to me that many of those active in the debate around the controversial immigration law SB1070 are operating on very different information. On Wednesday, a last-second injunction from Judge Susan Bolton temporarily stopped the most aggressive provisions of SB1070 from going into effect. In particular, she struck down the section that compels police officers to demand identification from anyone they stop whom they suspect of being in the country without papers. Arizona's state government has announced it will appeal Bolton's decision.
In the hours after the injunction was announced, hundreds of SB1070 opponents gathered in front of the State Capitol building in Phoenix for a celebration that included mariachi music and dancing.
Jill Abbott was one of four supporters of the bill who stood some fifty feet from the celebration holding signs expressing their disapproval with the judge's decision. "They're celebrating their victory, but it's not gonna last long. Because when it gets to the Supreme Court, that's where we'll win."
Abbot questioned the sincerity of the demand for legalization that accompanies all anti-SB1070 protests. "They don't want to become citizens, they want everything free and handed to them on a silver platter."
This statement came just minutes after I met recent high-school graduate Alejandra Valenzuela, who would love nothing more than US citizenship.
When she was seven years old her father died of cancer. Her mother then moved the family to the US, without papers, to find a way to provide for the family. "Everything was going well until I found out I was undocumented," Valenzuela tells me with a confident smile. "[I] had a 4.0 GPA, was doing great, involved in my community clubs, and then they tell me I can't go to college because I don't have enough money and can't get money from the government."
I ask Carlos Alvarez of the Phoenix chapter of the ANSWER Coalition about allegations that people choose to avoid legal processes for getting papers. He rolls his eyes. "I think all the people that say that never had to cross the border. Meaning that they never had to run away from poverty, never had to run away from war, never had to run away from right-wing despots that the US has imposed on other countries. When we're talking about immigration we're talking about US foreign policy."
"This is an invasion."
Says Judy Hoelscher, co-founder of the Cave Creek Patriots Tea Party Posse, one of numerous citizen groups that have formed under the Arizona Tea Party banner over recent months. Hoelscher is a firm supporter of the controversial SB1070 immigration law.
"We simply cannot afford illegal immigration," explains Hoelscher. "We're suffering from the crime wave, the drugs that are coming across, murders, rapes, and kidnappings." There's no question that Mexico-based drug cartels are operating in Arizona, often violently. However, the ease with which SB1070 supporters link them to undocumented workers is troublesome. The crime wave that Hoelscher refers to is difficult to substantiate when Department of Justice statistics show that the violent crime rate has dropped by 23% over the past ten years. Over that same decade, Department of Homeland Security statistics estimate that the population of undocumented immigrants in Arizona roughly doubled.
Public figures like Arizona governor Jan Brewer haven't helped to clarify any of these errors. Brewer has said that "the majority" of those that cross the border undocumented are carrying drugs. Meanwhile, the Tucson Border Patrol reports that less than 1% of those apprehended without documents are charged with drug offenses. (http:// azstarnet.com/news/local/border/article_debfe208-b825-591b-85d2-d85d3db52094.html) "What that's called is a lie," says Carlos Alvarez of Phoenix's ANSWER Coalition. "She's also said that they've found headless bodies, which we know they have not." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/ AR2010070902342.html)
But why lie?
"[The statements are] meant to terrorize the undocumented community and turn the white community against the undocumented workers." Alvarez believes it's all part of an electoral strategy based on hate mongering. "Arizona is the state with the most active white supremacist groups in the nation. It's a very real social relationship that people have to racism." (http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bastard/2010/07/neo- nazi_jt_ready_and_us_borde.php)
Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, who opposes SB1070, told the LA Times that "[a]ll you have to do in Arizona is come out with anything that's anti-immigrant and you will be in good shape in the polls." (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/03/nation/la-na- arizona-crime-20100503/2)
FLASHBACKS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS VET
Raymond Nowakowski is the father of the current Vice-Mayor of Phoenix. He wears his US Army cap with pride while attending the 101st straight day of anti-SB1070 vigils in front of the State Capitol building. Nowakowski was part of the 101st Airborne Division that was deployed by President Eisenhower in 1957 to escort nine black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They marched the students past the governor, the Arkansas National Guard, and the white segregationist crowds that just weeks earlier had worked together to keep the students out of the building. The 'Little Rock Nine' became known the world over for breaking Arkansas' racially segregated school system.
"There was a hatred against a certain class of people back then," says Nowakowski, "and I see that same hatred being built up now." He adds that during his 44 years in Phoenix, there's always been friction between the white-Anglo majority and communities of color, but that its been growing over recent years, with the passing of SB1070 marking its apex. Nowakowski believes that the angst directed at Latino immigrants in Arizona has its roots in election demographics. He says that in 5-10 years, the quickly aging white-Anglo majority might become a minority, and that means losing power.
The night before the injunction was passed, I was at a meeting of the Sun City Tea Party. As the meeting came to a close, I struggled to find anyone amongst the all-white crowd who appeared to be of working age. Hoelscher was one of only a handful that fit the profile. She's a seamstress by trade who has been unable to find steady employment for the last few years. She says that undocumented workers have lowered the wages in Arizona, and rendered employment in sectors like hers all but impossible. I can see the concern in her eyes as she routinely shifts her gaze from me to her young daughter, who is waiting patiently to go home.
If it's about wages, I ask, then why not support legalization? Wouldn't the accompanying labor protections force the wages up?
"Real unemployment is at 18% here, and growing," she explains. "To have to compete for that few jobs? Millions and millions of more people for that few jobs? We need to take care of our own. America's citizens first and not the rest of the world's third world citizens."
For Monica Ruiz, who traveled from New York City to be a part of the actions in Arizona, the jobs argument is a dangerous misconception that is taking hold at a national level. She tells me that workers both take and create jobs by spending their earnings. So, she explains, there's no such thing as a fixed number of jobs because growth through immigration is the history of the United States. "[This is the] hysteria they've created around the country, where even liberals are saying 'well, we really have an immigration problem.'" Her voice deepens and her pace slows while she takes on her 'liberal persona' before returning to her original, determined rhythm. "The only reason this is an issue today is because there is a downturn in the economy and somebody has to be blamed."
"It's easier for the majority of middle-class people, who are losing more than anybody else right now, to direct their hatred and their anger toward the ones that have the least. Rather than making sure that they're actually looking up, instead of down." I will be in Arizona all week. Keep checking www.therealnews.com for video coverage of these events and more.
Jesse Freeston is a video-journalist with The Real News Network. He is originally from Ontario, Canada, but has spent most of the last two years reporting from El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States. His work has covered a variety of topics including: the military-industrial complex, economics & labor issues, Central American social movements, and resource rights.
Blogger's Note: See what the AFL-CIO has to say about illegal workers.