Arizona is in the grip of an anti-immigrant fever. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose popularity has been built on his tough enforcement tactics and willingness to defy the federal government, is on the edge of a run for governor. But even if he doesn't, the state has a controversial new law that requires police to determine the status of anyone if there is a "reasonable suspicion" they are in the US illegally - and arrest them if documents can't be produced. Hiring day laborers off the street has also become a crime.
Supporters see the law as an anti-crime measure and part of a larger campaign to secure the border. Opponents call it racial profiling and claim it is unconstitutional.
Gov. Jan Brewer, the Republican who replaced Janet Napolitano when she became Obama's Homeland Security chief, waited as long as possible before taking a position on SB 1070. Caught between a conservative primary challenge and the prospect of her state becoming the target of a Latino-led boycott, her first step was to issue a border security plan of her own. It includes increased surveillance, redirecting stimulus money to local law enforcement, and a request to President Obama for more National Guard border support.
Then, on April 23, as large crowds protested in Phoenix and Tuscon, Brewer signed the bill. Arguing that she is responding to a crisis, she linked her decision to the drug war.
Latino members of Congress had urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto. "When you institutionalize a law like this one, you are targeting and discriminating at a wholesale level against a group of people," Rep. Raul Grijalva said. More than 50,000 people signed petitions opposing the law, about 2,500 students from high schools across Phoenix walked out of school and marched to the Capitol, and nine college students were arrested during protests for chaining themselves to the Capitol building doors to pressure the governor.
Interim County Attorney Rick Romley calls it an unfunded mandate that was "tearing the community apart" and pledges that, despite the law's thrust, he will focus on organized crime syndicates engaged in human smuggling. Obama says it is "misguided." But Arpaio accuses opponents of just not wanting to enforce immigration laws, and state polls reveal strong public support.
Tourism and business leaders worry that the law will discourage visitors and economic development, comparing it to what happened when another Arizona governor rescinded recognition of Martin Luther King Day as a holiday in 1987. At least $300 million in income was lost and the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Phoenix. Eventually, voters approved the state holiday.
Despite the social and economic dangers, Arizona's two US Senators, Jon Kyl and John McCain, don't just support the move. They've unveiled their own 10-point plan, including 3,000 National Guardsmen to be deployed to the state's border, 24/7 monitoring by unmanned aerial vehicles, permanent addition of 3,000 Custom and Border Protection agents, and completion of 700 miles of fencing.
The Arizona legislation "is exactly why the federal government must act on immigration reform," argues state Democratic leader Jorge Luis Garcia. "We cannot have states creating a jigsaw puzzle of immigration laws. This bill opens the doors to racial profiling with the provision that allows an officer to ask for citizenship papers from someone who only looks illegal."
When Napolitano was governor, she vetoed similar bills. She was relatively tough on immigration, especially on businesses who hired undocumented people, imposing what she called a "business death penalty" - basically taking away licenses - from those violating an employer sanctions law twice. However, she opposed punishing immigrants who were already here and didn't think much of a border fence. "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder," she said.
Things have changed since she left. Whether or not the 77-year-old Arpaio runs for governor and wins the GOP primary (or the general election), immigration will remain front and center in state politics for the foreseeable future, potentially accelerating and certainly influencing the national debate over reform. The Arizona law also plays into the "state's rights" thrust of the current anti-federal government surge.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is a persistent theme in US politics. In 1996, for example, when then-California Gov. Pete Wilson announced that undocumented pregnant women should be denied prenatal care, his underlying message was clear and brutal: If you're "illegal," get out of our country!
Wilson's statement came at another dangerous time, one marked by resurgent racism, increased police brutality, vigilante violence, and rationalization of virtually any attack. In other words, we've been here before.
In the early 1980s, low intensity conflict (LIC) theorists constructed a Los Angeles insurrection scenario requiring a military response and sealing the nearby border. A decade later, the Border Patrol played a key role in the L.A. riots of 1992, deployed in Latino communities and arresting more than 1,000 people. Afterward, the INS began work with the Pentagon's Center for Low-Intensity Conflict, and the line between civilian and military operations was largely erased.
Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch accused the US Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards. After 9/11, the federal government considered placing US soldiers along the Mexican border.
But efforts to curtail immigration through tighter security have done little but redirect the flow into the most desolate areas of the border, increasing the mortality rate of those crossing. Between 1998 and 2004, at least 1,900 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. In recent years, Arizona has become the main entry point for undocumented immigrants into the US. An estimated 460,000 live in the state, but the total has dropped by at least 100,000, or 18 percent, since 2008.
In the last five years, around 200 people have died annually along the Arizona border in wilderness areas, according to medical examiner data compiled by Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. On the other hand, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu charges that "numerous" officers have been killed by illegal immigrants, and that the violence has reached "epidemic proportions." Although that's true, the main spikes in crime have been in home invasions and kidnapping, both of which are linked to the drug war and organized crime based in Mexico.
Anti-immigrant activists deny charges of racism. But the facts tell a different story. Almost unlimited numbers of immigrants from mostly white, European countries are allowed into the US, while Latin Americans and Africans rarely even get tourist visas. And although sweatshops that employ undocumented workers are condemned, they aren't often shut down, but merely raided, resulting in deportations. The owners may be fined, but they still come out ahead. After all, deported workers can't collect back wages.
The Arizona law makes police go after anyone whose look or dress is "suspicious," yet does little to toughen the employer sanctions legislation passed in 2007. That gave authorities the power to suspend or revoke the business licenses of employers caught knowingly hiring illegal workers and required all businesses to use E-Verify to check the work eligibility of new employees. Since then, only two cases have been settled in which the employers admitted guilty. All the new law says is that they must maintain those E-Verify records.
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More than 150 years ago, at the end of a two-year war between Mexico and the US, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Many Latinos still feel that the treaty, accepted under pressure by a corrupt dictator, was an act of theft violating international law. Mexico surrendered half its territory - now the Southwestern United States - and most of the Mexicans who stayed in the ceded region ultimately lost their land.
In a sense, that war never ended. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, US officials, working closely with white settlers and elites, used often-violent means to subdue Mexicans in the region.
Once the region was "pacified," border enforcement became a tool to regulate the flow of labor into the US. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the Border Patrol emerged as gatekeeper of a "revolving door," sometimes processing immigrant labor, sometimes cracking down. The Bracero Program, which brought in Mexican agricultural laborers, was followed (and overlapped by) Operation Wetback, an INS-run military offensive against immigrant workers.
The border is still a battlefield. During recent decades, government strategies for combating undocumented immigration and drug trafficking have re-militarized the region.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meshed neatly with more obvious aspects of low-intensity conflict doctrine. The definition of immigration and drug trafficking as "national security" issues has brought state-of-the-art military approaches into domestic affairs. But just as the projection of a "communist menace" was a smokescreen for post-war expansionism, a "Brown wave," the "Drug War," and terrorism have been used as pretexts for military-industrial penetration.
LIC doctrine uses diverse tactics - from the subtle and psychological ("winning hearts and minds") to the obvious and brutal. Such flexibility requires the most sophisticated tools available, and the integration of police, paramilitary, and military forces. It also requires a plausible "enemy" - in this case, immigrants who can be accused of almost anything and abused with impunity.
In this kind of war, borders are ultimately unimportant. Battles are waged everywhere, even in communities far from a frontier. This blurs the line between police and the military, and further threatens basic rights.
Latinos soon will be the largest minority group in the US, according to Census Bureau predictions: at least 44 million, or 15 percent of the nation's population. Although the biggest expansion will occur in states that draw the most immigrants - California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey - the spill-over will reach from Atlanta to Minneapolis and Washington state. California is expected to undergo the most dramatic transformation - to at least 50 percent Latino and possibly only 32 percent white by 2040.
Overall, immigration is fueling US population growth, and the Census Bureau predicts a tripling of the Hispanic and Asian populations in less than 50 years. While the number of whites may increase by seven percent, the three largest minorities - Hispanic, Black, and Asian - are expected to rise by 188, 71, and 213 percent respectively. The bottom line is that these three groups are expected to constitute at least 47 percent of total US population by 2050. While such forecasts certainly have much to do with the current anti-immigrant climate, the trend won't be reversed by race-motivated legislation.
Low-intensity war against non-white immigrants is especially evident along the US-Mexico border. It takes many forms: militarization, criminalizing the undocumented, repressive legislation, human rights violations, and cruel, discriminatory attacks on children and the poor. Arizona's new law is the latest development - the toughest state law on illegal immigration yet.
According to Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the plan, the idea is to wipe out the "sanctuary policies of cities." He says that politicians and others have handcuffed the police, keeping them from finding and arresting those in this country illegally. State action is necessary, he adds, because of political failure in Washington.
Democratic Sen. Rebecca Rios agrees that the federal government hasn't done enough to secure the border, but doesn't think this is the answer. "This bill does nothing to address human smuggling, the drug cartels, the arms smuggling," she says. "It creates a lot of negative effects that none of us here want, she adds. "And, yes, I believe it will create somewhat of a police state.'
Despite the state's libertarian streak, Arizona lawmakers apparently have other concerns. In addition to pushing through a roundup of "illegals" by any means necessary, they're considering legislation that would require any future presidential candidate to produce a US birth certificate - a nod to the "birthers" who think Obama isn't a citizen. The governor has already signed a law letting people carry concealed weapons without a permit, and another saying that federal laws don't apply to weapons and ammunition manufactured wholly within Arizona.
The picture emerging is of a state that's armed and paranoid, hostile to federal oversight, and suspicious of anyone who looks or talks like an outsider. The immigration law, along with other recent legislation, support for the "birther" movement, and the statement by J.D. Hayworth, who is challenging McCain, that same sex marriage laws would lead to men marrying horses is leading many people to ask: What's wrong with Arizona?
In some respects, its situation is unique. Combined with its proximity to the border, there is the enormous growth of Phoenix, the arrival of so many transplants from Eastern cities and California, and a general disinterest in politics that has let things careen out of control. Turnout is low for primary elections, and the legislature is more conservative than the general public. This has created an opening for figures like Pearce, who has associated with Nazis, Hayworth and Arpaio, who have become influential political allies.
On the other hand, Arizona represents an extreme manifestation of the anger and reactionary sentiments roiling across the country. With the rise of a new state's rights, anti-immigrant movement, the choice facing the state and the nation as a whole has become basic, between what Mexican author Jose Vasconcelos once called Universopolis - a place in which all the peoples of the world are melded into a "cosmic race" - and the Blade Runner scenario.
In Blade Runner, a prescient 1982 film, Los Angeles in the 21st century has become an ominous "world city" marked by cultural fusion and economic stratification, a sunless and polluted place, overcrowded with Asian and Latino drones who barely look up at the metal fortresses of the rich. USC professor Kevin Starr warned of this possibility, "a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities" in "L.A. 2000," a city-sponsored report that touted it as "the" city of the future. In essence, that option is an advanced imperialist state, one that encompasses colonies within its own borders. Phoenix could go the same way.
Like Vasconcelos, author Salman Rushdie can envision a more optimistic, multicultural alternative. Immigrants may not so much assimilate as leak into one another, he suggests, "like flavors when you cook."
Of course, this is precisely what frightens many angry, fearful people. For them the USA is hot dogs and apple pie, and they have no desire to change their diets. They want "their country" back, and with Sheriff Arpaio as an immigrant-hunting Wyatt Earp, plus a tough new law on the books, Arizona has become a flashpoint for that fight.
Related video: The Ballad of Sheriff Joe