By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
"My great grandfather didn't travel 4,000 miles across the ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland."
-- faux-Republican satirist, Stephen Colbert
If you've never witnessed a lightning storm over Arizona, you've missed an extraordinary sight, thrilling and dangerous all at once. The state itself is a place of fragile détente between the desert and those who inhabit it. As the tribal home of the fierce Apache, the proud Navajo and the prophetic Hopi, it is a modern marvel that Americanos can thrive there. At the Northern gateway to the Sonoran Desert, it's also the birthplace to generations of Mexican-Americans with loyalties split between nation and heritage. This is a place of vast scrub and cactus-covered vistas, a historical mingling of cultures, as well as a particularly virulent form of white nationalism dressed in cowboy boots with a gun strapped on its hip.
I lived in Tucson for several years. Having moved from the San Diego area, where immigration problems are legion, I was surprised at how integrated and peaceable the amalgam of Arizona citizens seemed. The most obvious strain among races was not between white and Hispanic, but instead was directed at the small African-American population, which kept its head low. Arizona voters finally approved a form of the Martin Luther King holiday in 1992, but only after a much publicized battle and a crippling tourist boycott. I found Arizona to be one of those "Yes, but ..." places. Yes, extraordinary in its subtle beauty and energy, but difficult to abide on a daily basis. Yes, a place peaceful enough to the untrained eye, but constantly alert at its interior. Yes, homogeneous in its workplaces and neighborhoods, but tightly controlled by an 'old white guy' ruling class that remained invisible and inflexible.
The storm broke over Arizona last week with passage of a bill that declared undocumented aliens to be criminals, requiring police to check the papers of anyone considered suspect. The law targets nearly half of Arizona's population, which is only 58 percent caucasian. You know there's psychic weather brewing when the neo-Nazi website, Stormfront, announces "more good news out of Arizona!" (Prior good news included the pending Birther Bill and vigilante-like militias guarding the border.) Arizona's carry law requires no license to carry a gun, and many citizens are armed. Encouraged by the new legislation, one militia organizer now recruits "combat veterans, with kill records, to camp out and patrol the border."
Their brown shirt hero is Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. Arpaio bills himself as "the toughest sheriff in America." He boasts of zero tolerance for illegals and abusive treatment of prisoners, housing them in tent-cities during scorching desert summers and bitter winters, making them wear pink underwear, and feeding them outdated surplus food. His name is synonymous with 'green bologna' and 'chain gangs.' Arpaio is plagued by lawsuits for wrongful death and other violations from employees, inmates, their families and civil rights activists. For a while, his take-no-prisoners approach to criminal justice appealed to Arizona citizens who prefer the gunslinger meme. The shine is off Arpaio now, his boasts of saving taxpayers money proven false. He has been accused of wiretapping, extortion and inappropriate use of manpower as lawsuits pile up. Arpaio received a vote of 'no confidence' from the majority of police associations in Arizona, but he remains a hero to the anti-immigration faction.
Arizona's new law, called the formation of a police state by the religious right as well as by civil rights champions on the Left, represents a rupture of America's ballooning immigration problem. California's Cardinal Roger Mahony, clarifying his church's policy, called the new law "Nazism." Former Governor Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security, vetoed this kind of legislation three times during her tenure. When her replacement, Republican Jan Brewer, stepped into the slot in 2008, the machinery of intolerance began to turn. The immigration issue had been on the back burner for a long while, and Obama had hoped to deal with it next year, after finance and environmental reforms were accomplished. Now that it has bubbled over, there's no avoiding the issue, and it has the potential to divide the nation further.
The president has called Arizona's new law unfair and misguided, possibly illegal, and has instructed the Justice Department to see if it violates civil rights laws. Other legal challenges to its constitutionality are expected. Daily Kos reports that "the Arizona law simply mirrors the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, which long ago in 1975 found racial profiling to be a legal basis for stopping and searching motorists," while Republicans Karl Rove and Linsey Gram express doubts that the law is constitutional. The ACLU contends that SB-1070 -- a.k.a. the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act -- allows the state to regulate immigration, a power which the Constitution assigns to the federal government. Police in Arizona are not happy with their new duties, and may initiate lawsuits as well.
When the law was announced, protestors hit the streets in Arizona and across the nation. Communities have vowed to boycott Arizona products and tourism. Activists smeared refried beans in the shape of swastikas on the state Capitol's windows. The Mexican government issued an advisory alert to would-be tourists that they may be "bothered and questioned" indiscriminately. Where I used to live, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik declared that he has no intention of enforcing the new law, calling it abominable, morally wrong and a national embarrassment. Said Dupnik, "We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. If we go out and look for illegal immigrants, they accuse us of racial profiling and we can get sued. And if some citizen doesn't think we're enforcing the state law, they can sue us too." He did not mention the billions of dollars it will cost to try to deport detainees, or the repercussions to labor, or the strain on capacity of the dwindling police force, caught in cutbacks.
This storm has been slowly brewing for decades while Americans disagreed on appropriate immigration laws. To be fair, the clouds could have gathered over any of the Red states, who have traditionally been reluctant to integrate although always eager to welcome cheap labor. We can't have it both ways, but we've been unwilling to address the underlying issues. Arizona defends itself by accusing Obama of failure to resolve the border emergency, despite his spending billions to increase border patrols and continue building the controversial border wall. Amazing numbers of immigrants brave the hazards that are often a death march through the parched Sonoran Desert. Arizona estimates it has some 460,000 undocumented aliens, the most border crossings of any state.
The timing of the new law could not be worse. We are pitted against one another once again, our loyalties stretched and, forced to choose sides again on humanitarian challenges. Greg Palast -- who calls the new law Jose Crow -- has written an enlightening article
on Arizona's current Governor, her effort to disenfranchise Hispanic voters in the last election, and how this situation may serve the GOP. A Talking Points Memo article speculates
on the boost Dem incumbents might expect.
Resulting migration away from Arizona may compromise projections for both the recent Census and the new Health Reform bill. Inevitably, the racism tearing at the American fabric will turn meaner as the storm rages above Arizona -- even as it rages in the hearts and minds of a nation that has yet to honor its pledge of justice for all. Arizona, once a part of Mexico and long considered 'ground zero' of the immigration fight, has, improbably, become the Great White Hope.