By Javier Farje, LAB
It seemed like a good idea at the time. You pass a draconian law against illegal immigration and everyone will support it. The government of the US border state of Arizona could not have got it more wrong. Perhaps the protests from the other side of the 2,000-mile border, those Mexicans, whose President has said that the new law “opens the gates of hatred”, aren’t too important. What matters more is that the hated federal government, a remote entity that generally does not bother about what happens in faraway states, is concerned. And even neighbouring states have threatened to boycott Arizona. And. That is something the Arizona government did not expect.
In simplified terms, the law makes illegal immigration a state crime.
The law, called S.B. 1070, says in one of its chapters that it “requires a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.”(1)
The law gives the police ample powers to implement the law, including the exchange of information on immigration status with other agencies, the power to arrest a person who is suspected of having committed a crime as a step towards deportation, as well as heavy fines for those who infringe the law, including transporting and employing illegal immigrants.
Critics of the law say that it will lead to what they believe is racial profiling. They says that it means that a Hispanic-looking person is more likely to be stopped and interrogated than a blue-eyed white one.
Many Arizonians believe that this is the only way to stop illegal immigration into the state that has become the biggest entry point for thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans, who want to escape from poverty and violence in their own countries.
According to the Durango Herald, Arizona is home to almost half a million illegal immigrants. And many misinformed citizens believe that there is a direct link between crime and illegal immigration, despite the fact that, in 2008, of all people arrested for different offences, from burglary to murder, only 31.5% were of Hispanic origin.(2) What seems clear is that the violent drug war in neighbouring Mexico seems to have increased a sense of fear in Arizona.
In an editorial, The Durango Herald says that “it is hard not to sympathize with Arizonians living next to what increasingly resembles a failed state. Mexico is enmeshed in a civil war between government forces and drug cartels. The casualty rate in some border areas is more akin to what one might expect in Mogadishu or Afghanistan than what used to be a popular destination for North American tourists and retirees”.(3)
This is a widespread misleading perception in a deeply conservative state whose legislature is dominated by the Republicans of what happens in Mexico. A great number of weapons used by drug gangs in Mexico come from the USA and not the other way around. Furthermore, drug smugglers will certainly avoid Arizona as a transit route to other states and will find other ways of sending their illegal cargos to the big cities, like New York and San Francisco.
In any cases, some southern Republicans have clear ideas of what they want to do with illegal immigrants. Some days ago, Republican Representative Duncan Hunter, from California, said during a “tea party” meeting (the right-wing anti-Obama Republican movement) that he is in favour of deporting the children of illegal immigrants, even if they were born in the United States.
For the first time in more that a decade, Arizona has also a Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, (pictured) who succeeded Democrat Janet Napolitano when she was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security by the Obama administration. Napolitano always blocked harsh immigration laws proposed by Republican legislators. But Brewer, who is standing for re-election in November, knows that the law will go down well with the profoundly reactionary Republican Party and the profoundly reactionary electorate, whose support she needs.
This is not the first time Arizona has shown its true colours. Historically speaking, this state of more than five million inhabitants has opposed liberal America on other occasions. It sided with the Confederate army during the civil war and its legislature put up a doomed fight to prevent the creation of the Martin Luther King Day during the Reagan years. One of the main opponents of the celebration of the life of the leader of the civil rights movement was the Arizona Senator John McCain.
Now, the backlash seems to be coming from within a country that believes that the Arizona legislature has gone too far, even by its own standards.
For starters, President Barack Obama has said: “Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others, and that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe. In fact, I’ve instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil-rights and other implications of this legislation.” (4)
This means that Obama seems to be prepared to break a long tradition of federal non-interference in the internal laws of states, to act on the Arizona immigration law. But he has not said how. And opponents of the new law plan to collect enough signatures to have a referendum at the time of state elections in November.
The mayor of California, Gavin Newsom, has “banned” fellow Californians from going to Arizona. This is, of course, largely symbolic, but the cancellation of a visit by Arizona officials to California is not. Legally speaking, Newsom cannot prevent his fellow Californians from travelling to Arizona, but he is, in practice, calling for a boycott of the state. And tourism (the Grand Canyon is there) is one of the state’s main sources of income.
A similar move has been made by a group of lorry drivers who are planning to boycott Arizona as a route for Mexican produce travelling to California and other states. Some local Arizonian businessmen have dismissed the boycott as irrelevant. Jaime Chamberlain, the owner of a distribution business based in Arizona, disagrees. He told the Miami Herald: “If there are truckers who do feel that this is not a good bill and not a good law, and if they refuse to drive through the state of Arizona, that’s not good for Arizona, because every single one of these truckers spends money in our state” (5).
Also, many Mexican tourist may be put off by the possibility of being detained because of their looks and may choose to keep away from Arizona. Eloisa Flores Garcia, president of the legislature of the Mexican state of Sonora, told Inter Press Service: “Arizona is no longer a safe place for us to go, because the police will stop us on the streets for not (carrying) proper documentation.” (6)
And the opposition has also come from the conservative camp.
Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, wrote in her column in the Daily Beast website: “I do not support the bill that was signed by Governor Jan Brewer. I believe it gives the state police a license to discriminate, and also, in many ways, violates the civil rights of Arizona residents. Simply put, I think it is a bad law that is missing the bigger picture of what is really going on with illegal immigration. The concept that a law-enforcement official can stop an individual when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that a person is an alien, who is unlawfully present in the United States’ is essentially a license to pull someone over for being Hispanic”.(7) She warned, however, that people should reject the law and not the citizens of Arizona.
If the Republican lawmakers thought that the law would pass without a fuss, they’ll have to think again. Hard.
Jan Brewer: Arizona Governor portal