Anger builds over Arizona law

April 26, 2010

Angela Stoutenburgh reports from Arizona on the impact of a sweeping new anti-immigrant law--and the response it provoked from opponents who believe that "no human being is illegal."

WITHIN HOURS of Arizona's racist immigration bill being signed into law on April 23, thousands of people across the state began taking to the streets against SB 1070--the strictest immigration law in the country.

Phoenix, the state's capitol, saw several demonstrations over April 23-25, as hundreds--and in some cases, several thousands--of immigrant rights defenders turned out against the new law. As many as 2,000 students walked out of several Phoenix high schools in protest. Other demonstrations occurred in cities across the state, and furious immigrant rights supporters around the U.S. met and organized a response to this latest assault.

Ramon Garcia, an activist who traveled to Phoenix from Tucson to take part in a rally of several thousand on April 24, told Reuters, "I feel very strongly that the law is extremely unconstitutional and racist, and it violates both human and civil rights."

Another 3,500 protesters turned out the following day in Phoenix. Wearing T-shirts that read "Legalize Arizona" and carrying signs saying "We are human" and "We have rights," protesters called for the Obama administration to block the law by passing federal immigration reform, and for activists to carry out civil disobedience, if necessary, to oppose the unjust law.

Protesters march against SB 1070 outside the Arizona Capitol Building in Phoenix
Protesters march against SB 1070 outside the Arizona Capitol Building in Phoenix (Art Foxall | UPI)

As Dr. Warren Stewart, pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church, told the crowd, "Some of us may have to go to jail if all else fails. Let's fill up and overflow [anti-immigrant Maricopa County] Sheriff Arpaio's jail. Overflow it with those for righteousness and for justice."

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon told the crowd: "We'll go to court. We'll go to the state courts, we'll go to the federal courts, and we'll go all the way to the Supreme Court. The law is unconstitutional, the law makes it unsafe for everyone and the law will harm us economically. Most importantly, it is just plain wrong."

SB 1070 was signed on April 23 by Gov. Jan Brewer. Brewer claims the law is a necessity because of a supposed "crisis" of undocumented immigration that, she says, "the federal government has refused to fix."

The law makes it a crime for immigrants to fail to carry identification papers. It also "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...if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.," according to a state government fact sheet.

In other words, Arizona police are now required to check the immigration status of anyone "suspected" of possibly being undocumented (although the law fails to specify exactly what a "reasonable suspicion" is). If police or other state officials don't follow up, the law also allows Arizona residents to sue the state for failing to abide by the letter of the law.

In addition, the new law makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or solicit work in Arizona or to pick up a day laborer for work if the vehicle impedes traffic. It also makes a day laborer subject to criminal charges if he or she is picked up, and the vehicle involved impedes traffic.

After signing the bill into law, Brewer claimed that its critics were "overreacting." But when asked what reasonable criteria could used to establish suspicion of someone's legal status, Brewer answered, "I don't know. I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like."

That's precisely the problem. The law is an open invitation to racial profiling.

ACTIVISTS ARE not sitting back while the law goes into effect. This legalized bigotry is prompting a groundswell of protests across the state and the country in defense of immigrant rights.

In Tucson, for example, two rallies took place just on the day the law was signed. Motorists downtown watched as students walked out of their schools and down Congress Street to congregate outside the Federal Building in the morning. Activists from the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Coalition of Human Rights) said that this protest was "no one group; it was everybody."

More than 500 people, mostly students, came out with signs and bullhorns, despite the fact that the call for a protest did not go out until 10 a.m. Many of the protesters had not even been aware of the demonstration until they received a text or a Facebook invitation, or heard that their classmates were going.

As students sang "Sí, se puede, sí, sí, se puede!" motorists in the streets honked their horns in rhythm to the beat, and students responded with loud cheers. Local Tucson police scuttled around in an attempt to redirect morning traffic.

One participant said that she was "glad to catch them by surprise." As one organizer told the crowd, "We will not let them take this moment away." As the students, some as young as middle school, cheered with their hands in the air, their voices were drowned out by passing city busses honking their horns in support.

Later the same afternoon, protestors rallied at Armory Park and marched to the Federal Building with students from Tucson High. Nearly 600 people marched down Congress Street, protesting Brewer's signature on the bill.

As organizers reminded participants to stay on the sidewalks, one shouted into a bullhorn, "We are not criminals. We are a community that demands respect! They hope that 1070 will divide our community. They are wrong. We are connected in ways they will never understand."

COMMUNITY GROUPS, students and activists have been rallying and organizing against SB 1070 since the law was first proposed. One of the most visible protests occurred on April 21 as a group of nine students chained themselves to the Capitol building and were arrested.

Another protest took place at the Capitol building a day later, and many smaller ones have happened across the state, and even outside of the state. Many more are scheduled in the days and weeks ahead.

SB 1070 does not go into effect for 90 days after the legislature closes sessions. Activists must now keep up the pressure against the state as schools close for summer.

On April 25, the Rev. Al Sharpton, announced that his National Action Network would organize "freedom walkers" to challenge the Arizona bill, just as freedom riders challenged segregation decades ago. "We will go to Arizona when this bill goes into effect and walk the streets with people who refuse to give identification and force arrest," Sharpton said Sunday in New York.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is also calling on businesses and groups looking for convention and meeting locations to boycott Arizona--a call that is being taken up by many activists across the U.S.

The furor over the bill pressured President Barack Obama to criticize the law. He called it "misguided" and said that it threatens to "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." Obama promised to use the federal government's power to take on SB 1070.

But we can't wait on the federal government to challenge a law that will destroy lives from the day it goes into effect. This racist attack must be met with continued resistance locally and nationally. SB 1070 can become a lightning rod for building an immigrant rights movement that is already beginning to gain energy and momentum.

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