State of Disgrace: The Right Fiddles While Arizona Burns

It's getting hot here in Arizona
these days, and summer isn't even upon us yet. As you've most likely heard, the
Republican-controlled State
Legislature passed - and the Republican Governor signed - the nation's most
draconian anti-immigrant law, essentially creating a class of new "status
crimes" and opening a Pandora's Box of racial profiling implications.

It's getting hot here in Arizona
these days, and summer isn't even upon us yet. As you've most likely heard, the
Republican-controlled State
Legislature passed - and the Republican Governor signed - the nation's most
draconian anti-immigrant law, essentially creating a class of new "status
crimes" and opening a Pandora's Box of racial profiling implications. While to many
of us who live here such sentiments among state officials aren't exactly novel,
the shocking "where are your papers?" aspects of the law (SB 1070) have raised
a much-deserved national furor.

As is almost always the case, there's more to this than
meets the eye. Yes, this is part of an ideologically-motivated and
racially-tinged platform embraced by many in power here. In addition to
perpetual anti-immigrant bills being proposed and sometimes passed, this cadre
has been targeting education both through severe budget cuts and a form of
pedagogical purification in which it will quite likely soon be illegal to teach
anything that is deemed "anti-American" (HB 2281). Apparently, the irony of
passing these two bills in near succession must be lost on those who would
contravene constitutional law and moral sensibility in the name of American

It's the Economy, Stupid

We've been living in a political desert here for a long time,
and irony is only relevant if it can be strip-mined. While the state's coffers have
precipitously hit their nadir, legislators have rolled out corporate tax breaks,
passed "birther" requirements for ballot access, forced our public education
system down to the bottom rung, and shilled for more concealed weapons in our
midst. Now we get apartheid
that even go so far as to criminalize anyone who transports, harbors,
employs, or attempts to shield from enforcement an "unauthorized alien" (which
is of course a euphemism for "illegal immigrant," which is in turn a euphemism
for "persona non grata"). SB 1070 further cracks down on "day laborers" and
those who utilize said labor, indicating an obvious anti-Latino strain
permeating this shameful legislative act.

Much of the commentary thus far has understandably focused
on the ethnic and racial aspects of the bill. Undoubtedly, the measure is aimed
directly at vulnerable communities of color, and consequently the sense of fear
and terror among people already used to being persecuted has risen to
unprecedented levels. Many are considering leaving the state, and indeed this
type of en masse forced migration may
be part of what the law's advocates have intended all along. Less considered in
the analysis are the profoundly negative economic impacts likely to be the
result of the law, which flies in the face of the standard line advanced by
proponents that illegal immigrants are an economic drain on the state.

As Leah Mundell, co-chair of the Northern Arizona Interfaith
Council, explains, "one thing that has seemed increasingly clear is how blind
our representatives are to the links between immigrants and economic recovery
in Arizona.... Even if you
ignore the moral implications of SB 1070 entirely, it is incredible that the
Republicans would have passed this at a moment of such economic crisis for the
state. Judy Ganz [is] an economist at the Udall
Center at the University
of Arizona, who has calculated the
economic costs and benefits of immigration and shown that immigrants provide a
tremendous net cost benefit for the state. To pass a bill like this - an unfunded
mandate for already strapped police departments, which will fill up our
jails and lead to untold lawsuits from both the right and the left
(for racial profiling and
failure to enforce the law) - at a time when we're so deep in debt already is
irresponsible beyond measure."

At this juncture, we might pause for a moment to consider
the state motto, which is "Ditat Deus" - translation: "God Enriches." Given the
thorough dismantling of the state's treasury in recent years, the phrase "Red
State" has taken on new meaning
here, and the divine ethos of this motto may well be our best remaining hope
for avoiding total economic collapse. By all appearances the Republicans are
fiddling while Arizona burns, yet
perhaps a sense of just desserts will still triumph in the end as the backlash
from their folly might finally cause the Right to fizzle while Phoenix,
et al. rises from the ashes. Maybe then we can adopt a new and more accurate Latin
motto for the state: "Dito Advenae" - "Immigrants Enrich" (pardon my Latin).

Electoral Dysfunctions

Others have further noted the ostensible political
machinations at play here. Greg Palast speculates
that SB 1070 is a ploy to tamp down Democratic-leaning minority voters, and in
fact there is a potent history on this point that includes our current Governor
when she was Secretary of State. As Palast cogently observes, the law suits the
interests of the Republicans in power "because the vast majority of perfectly
legal voters and residents who lack ID sufficient for [them] are citizens of
color, citizens of poverty." Thus, part of the impetus for SB 1070, as Palast concludes,
is to dissuade legal immigrants from
participating electorally by creating a climate of intimidation. The roots of
this sort of nefarious business run deep here, including longstanding
that prominent Arizona Republicans such as former Supreme Court
Chief Justice William Rehnquist have orchestrated "ballot security" actions "that
swept through polling places in minority-dominated districts to challenge the
right of African Americans and Latinos to vote."

More recently, powerful individuals such as the bill's
sponsor, Republican State Sen. Russell Pearce, seem determined to uphold this
unfortunate legacy. As Democratic State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema
recently told me, Pearce "has been working for years to pass this bill. Up
to now, we've been successful in stopping him.... Instead of focusing on real
solutions to our state's crisis, this bill will only exacerbate problems that
already exist. Already, Sheriff Joe [Arpaio] is under investigation by the Department
of Justice, and reports of racial profiling are coming out of Maricopa
County regularly now. This is
a sad stain on our state, but it's not a new stain. Folks like Mr. Pearce
and his extremist allies around the country have been working towards this for years."
Oddly enough, Pearce prominently displays these words from the Declaration of Independence
on his website, seemingly ignorant
of the fact that they contain no apparent limitation as to the extent of their
applicability: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Such ironies and absurdities would almost be funny - kind of
a desert Mayberry moment where the hayseeds find themselves in charge without a
clue how to proceed - except that it's a deadly serious game being played here.
The Arizona-Mexico border is the nation's most lethal for would-be crossers,
and the tensions of NAFTA-inspired corporate globalization have added a
demonstrable touch of evil to an already foreboding landscape. While racism and
electoral machinations certainly play a part in the drama, there are even more
layers to this story, and unsurprisingly crass politics figure prominently into
the toxic mix that has engendered this law.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

I recently spoke about these issues
with Dr. Luis Fernandez, a professor of
Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University (NAU) who regularly works with
immigrant communities. He notes that a more pragmatic motivation for passing SB
1070 is that "with the economy so bad in the state, the party in power would
normally stand a good chance of getting kicked out of office," and with this
bill the Republican-dominated incumbents "are attempting to deflect attention
from the economy and control the agenda by forcing the immigration issue"
to the fore in a feat of political scapegoating. He further observes that "the
far right is trying to gain control of the Republican Party here," evidenced by
the serious primary challenges from the right being faced by Governor Jan
Brewer and Sen. John McCain, among others. "This is part of a battle for the
party's soul, and it could be a preview of what's in store nationally as well,"
Fernandez concludes.

Thus, while it appears to be a contest between powerful
reactionary forces on the one hand and communities of color and their
progressive allies on the other, it might be more to the point to see the furor
over SB 1070 as a battle between the right and the far right on some level,
with voter manipulation and pervasive racial profiling as the welcomed
byproducts. Still, the consequences for people already in precarious political,
legal, and economic straits are demonstrable. As Fernandez recalls, the day the
law was signed was akin to a "crushing blow ... people were openly crying and
many have been gripped by a terrifying fear." For many of these individuals,
the overwhelming majority of whom strive to support their families and
contribute peaceably to their communities, it was already scary to drive, ask
for work, or participate in the political process. "Now," Fernandez laments,
"their very existence is being threatened" - a point that is doubly poignant
when we further consider that many immigrants are in fact political and
economic refugees who have come here seeking a safe haven from violence and

In another moment of irony, the passage of SB 1070 may actually
be the product of fear and a perceived existential threat in itself, argues Dr.
Joel Olson, professor of Political Science at NAU and a member of the Repeal
Coalition, a statewide grassroots organizing seeking the repeal of all
anti-immigrant laws in Arizona since
2008. Olson points out that "the support for nativism in Arizona
is largely motivated by whites who fear a loss of racial status due to the
influx of Latinos to the state and who are uncomfortable with Spanish-language
signs in stores, TV and radio stations, etc." The racial aspects of the bill
are complex, he notes, and "very few supporters of 1070 consider themselves
racist or want to be seen as racist." Nevertheless, "they are driven by a fear
of the immigrant (read: Mexican) as a criminal," and oftentimes will "project
their racialized fears of crime onto the migrant, while still denying they are
racist," Olson concludes. As Mark Kurlansky opines in his book Nonviolence, "people motivated by fear
do not act well."

From Protest to Paradigm Shift

In this sense, the law is race-based yet is also motivated
by factors of fear, power, and status. Again, there are pervasive ironies to be
found, as Olson notes in his call for breaking the cycle of fear and repression
that largely defines the terms of the conflict: "The only solution is to show [supporters
of 1070] that these laws strip away their freedom, too.... These laws encourage
them to see their neighbors through the lens of fear rather than solidarity.
They are creating, in other words, the very problem they are trying to solve." As
State Rep. Sinema concurs, "the bill criminalizes people for being good
neighbors - taking a friend to church or giving someone a ride when their car
breaks down. If an Arizonan doesn't ask about their neighbors' legal
status, they're jeopardizing their own safety under the law. This forces
citizens to 'police' their own community, which is wrong." This line of analysis
has the virtue of resisting the tendency to demonize the law's supporters, and furthermore
suggests that we might seek solidarity-based answers to the complex issues
at play here rather than falling into the trap of pitting communities against
one another as real concerns go unheeded.

Indeed, amidst the grief and terror that has gripped migrant
communities, advocates and allies are seeking ways to help people turn their
tears into action. Talk of boycotts, mass civil disobedience, and open
subversion of the law is being heard from many corners. Some have been calling
upon law enforcement officers to refuse to enforce the law on moral and
constitutional grounds. Legal challenges are in the offing and it's possible (though
by most counts unlikely) that the federal government will step in given the massive
outcry over the bill. Regardless, it's going to be a long, hot summer here in
the desert as the battle ensues in the days
ahead. As Sinema counsels, the rightwing power structure has been at this for
some time, and now "it's our job to stop them and begin rebuilding an Arizona
that is welcoming and diverse."

In this same spirit of turning crisis into opportunity and
divisiveness into solidarity, Mundell observes that "this moment has tremendous
potential if we don't squander it. This week, people from across the community
are scandalized and furious. Immigrant leaders are calling for an economic
boycott to show the power of immigrant dollars. Public officials are debating
how to take legal action. Students are protesting. The anger and outrage are
even stronger than the fear that the bill provokes. But that kind of energy can
only be sustained for so long [and] I hope that we will use this moment to
build a more long-term strategy. That includes deep and collaborative
relationships with law enforcement, who [in many instances] do not want to have
to enforce this bill. It means listening carefully to immigrant leaders who
have often been afraid to speak out but now feel they have nothing left to
lose. It also means capitalizing on the shock that many who have not been
involved in this issue in the past are now
feeling. We have the opportunity to build a much broader power base now, to
hold our state elected officials accountable ... and to ensure that
comprehensive immigration reform doesn't fall off the national stage
by summer."

Talking about Arizona
politics in today's news cycle seemingly conjures images of Mississippi
in the 1960s: i.e., a place where racist fears have gone completely haywire. From
an outsider's perspective it may justifiably look this way, yet it's also the
case that many decent and dedicated people are working tirelessly here not just
to undo bad laws but to create a climate of respect and equity. In a time of
crisis where fear is rampant on all sides of the immigration debate, perhaps the
recognition of this basic commonality can serve as a crucible for turning an
incendiary issue into an opportunity for
Arizonans to act well with the eyes of the nation now squarely upon us.
Stranger things have happened in the desert, where we are all merely strangers
in a strange land.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.